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Review: In 'Clemency,' inmates aren't the only victims of death row

Alfre Woodard turns in a wrenching performance in Chinonye Chukwu's drama

Adam Graham
Detroit News Film Critic

In the emotionally heavy death row drama "Clemency," Alfre Woodard is a worn-down warrior, still fighting a battle she's not even sure she believes in anymore. 

Woodard plays Bernadine Williams, the warden at a prison who is overseeing her 12th execution. She follows the line of the law, because that's her job. Or, to hear her say it, "mine is not a job, it's a profession."   

Alex Castillo and Alfre Woodard in "Clemency."

Whatever helps you sleep at night. Except she's not sleeping, her marriage is a mess, and she's become a shell of a person. "Clemency" is about how far we go for our jobs, and what little we get back in return. 

Aldis Hodge, who had MC Ren's underwritten role in "Straight Outta Compton," impresses as Anthony Woods, the inmate whose execution is looming. Newly uncovered evidence points to his innocence, but it's not Bernadine's position to consider evidence. She is to carry out the wishes of the state and not ask questions. Her only indulgences are her trips to a local watering hole where she gets blackout drunk and temporarily forgets her days. 

Richard Schiff plays Anthony's attorney, Marty, who's ready to hang up his briefcase after a long career. His life's work has taken its toll, too. But as he explains to Bernadine, when he wins, a person gets to live. On her side, there is no winning. 

"Clemency" is written and directed by Chinonye Chukwu, and her deliberate pacing allows Woodward, Hodge and Schiff — as well as Wendell Pierce, who plays Bernadine's long suffering husband — to have rich moments. But it's Woodard's movie, and her character's silent anguish rests just below the surface of her stone-faced veneer. It's a powerful performance in a powerful movie. 



Rated R: for some disturbing material, and language

Running time: 113 minutes