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Alfre Woodard Makes A Plea For “Clemency”

In an interesting bit of irony, one of the first films to stand out as a possible Oscar contender in 2019 is now one of the year’s final releases. Yes, Clemency is finally hitting theaters this week, right in the final crop of Academy Award hopefuls. A heavy drama in all senses, this movie has some very strong acting, for sure, and focuses on a pair of interesting characters, but the story is so heavy, it ultimately undoes the story. Almost everything within the central location of the prison works, but when the flick ventures outside, things become almost comedically melodramatic, dulling its effectiveness.

The movie is a character study/drama, focusing on Bernadine Williams (Alfre Woodard), a prison warden tasked with overseeing executions on death row. She’s been doing it for years, and while she claims it doesn’t bother her, it’s clearly taking a toll, especially in the aftermath of an execution gone wrong. As the prison prepares to execute another inmate in Anthony Woods (Aldis Hodge), Bernadine begins coming apart. Both at home and at work, she’s finally showing cracks in her tough exterior, both connecting her more to Anthony as she preps his death, as well as putting a wedge between her and her husband Jonathan Williams (Wendell Pierce). As she confronts her issues, the date for Anthony’s death fast approaches. Will her emotional and psychological demons get in the way? Chinonye Chukwu writes and directs, with cinematography by Eric Branco, as well as a score from Kathryn Bostic. Supporting players include Danielle Brooks, Alex Castillo, LaMonica Garrett, Richard Gunn, Richard Schiff, and more.

Alfre Woodard, along with Aldis Hodge, do their best to drag this one across the finish line. Both are terrific, but both are ultimately done a disservice by the screenplay. The less that Chinonye Chukwu tries to nudge in plot points and the more she lets Hodge and especially Woodard just be emotive performers, the better this is. Their scenes together are great. However, as solid an actor as Wendell Pierce is, the sequences at home between him and Woodard are almost wholly misfires. One short scene could have detailed the same situation, without dragging things out. The more time spend there, the less you end up caring about the central issue. In that way, Chukwu hurts her own cause, as the melodrama swallows up the social issues and activism, rendering both less effective than they otherwise would have been.

Clemency debuted at the Sundance Film Festival back in January and immediately was speculated on as a vehicle to win Woodard the Oscar for Best Actress. She’s still somewhat in the running for that Academy Award citation, but the nomination would be her reward if it happens. The movie just isn’t a contender anywhere else, while her Actress competition has swallowed up way more of the attention this season. It’s possible she surprises at the last minute, but the odds no longer seem to be in her favor. If she slips in, she’ll almost undoubtedly do so as the fifth person in the category.

Tomorrow, anyone who first heard about Clemency at Sundance can finally check it out when it hits theaters in limited release. Woodard’s candidacy for Best Actress, even if it seems to be fading, will certainly bring in some viewers, but overall, this is sadly one of the more overrated flicks of the year. It definitely has its moments, but the melodrama ends up torpedoing the emotions, making it very much a mixed bag. You might think differently, and I’m well aware this is one of the few negative reviews out there, but that’s just how I came down on this film. Of course, your mileage may vary…

Clemency is in theaters this weekend.

About Joey Magidson

A graduate of Stony Brook University (where he studied Cinema and Cultural Studies), resides in Brooklyn, New York. He contributes to several other film-related websites and is a member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association.

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