Clemency review: Woodard is a force of nature in this deep, dark, and depressive dive

By Marc Miller
Published: February 4, 2020 (Last updated: February 7, 2024)
Clemency review: Woodard is a force of nature in this deep, dark, and depressive dive


Clemency is a clear singular actor’s showcase, with Alfre Woodard’s first and final scenes and everything in-between reminding us what a sheer force of nature she really is.

Initially, I felt Clemency would be a film that would have been better suited as a stage play off-Broadway since “The Great White Way” seems to remake only Blockbuster films nowadays, with the most recent I can think of being Mean Girls, then a feature. It’s a clear actor’s showcase here, with Alfre Woodard’s first and final scenes and everything in-between reminding us what a sheer force of nature she really is. It’s a dark, deep-dive, with very little room for any type of much-needed comic relief or in general some type of light touch. If you’re a fan of slow, morose experiences, then Clemency is the film to kill your holiday mood; which may explain why it was given an initial run just after the holidays and a wider release in 2020.

The toll has been very real on Bernadine Williams (Woodard), who has been a Warden who carries out executions from your friendly, local penitentiary. Her marriage to her husband Jonathan (Jack Ryan’s Wendell Pierce) is falling apart, but she is more concerned with her latest execution; Anthony Woods (Aldis Hodge of Brian Banks) is in jail for a murder he didn’t commit. His lawyer, Marty Lumetta, (The West Wing’s Richard Schiff), whose close friendship with her is built on years of him unsuccessfully defending inmates on death row. Bernadine is left to struggle with the psychological strain the job has put on her personal life and her emotional state; this latest execution may finally take its toll.

Clemency is as morose as it sounds, with very little comic relief — not that you could complain, given the situation the film puts itself in. Written and directed by Chinonye Chukwu (for which she became the first black woman to win the U.S. Dramatic Grand Jury Prize at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival), it could be considered a sibling of Paul Schrader’s First Reformed; a similar dark tale with the same weighty themes of ultimate moral dilemmas. Woodard’s time here is much more stoic, restrained, yet intimate, and she can tell her audience everything she needs to in one single glance, and you can see her inner turmoil is always about to boil over to the surface.

Overall, when I watched Clemency in what I call the great screener binge of 2019 last fall, I may have not given it enough credit for its collective tone and mood that Chukwu establishes here; along with exquisite cinematography from Eric Blanco, whose compassion and lighting are characters all its own, and give a heightened power to the stars’ presence. However, the film is still in desperate need of some light touches, even if Woodard’s performance down a deep, dark rabbit hole is one of the year’s great achievements. It’s a shame she was absolutely snubbed of a Best Actress nomination (Harriet’s Cynthia Erivo stole her spot and remains the most stunningly bad, ridiculous, and absurd selections in recent memory). Her performance ultimately saves the film, and you should seek it out, but a warning label to take with vitamin D should be followed.

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