It’s a veritable crime against cinema that Alfre Woodard isn’t nominated for an Oscar for her masterful portrayal as a troubled prison warden in the acclaimed drama “Clemency.”
Throughout her four-decade acting career, Woodard has garnered an Academy Award nomination, four Emmy Awards and two Golden Globes, but that doesn’t quite do justice to her practically preternatural skills as a performer.
Writer-director Chinonye Chukwu’s “Clemency” offers a sublime showcase for the native Oklahoman’s finely honed powers. The audience first encounters Woodard’s Bernadine Williams, the warden of a maximum security prison, as she is briskly overseeing her 11th execution of a death-row inmate, Victor Jimenez (Alex Castillo).
In a turn of events ripped from Oklahoma’s recent headlines, the lethal injection goes wrong, leaving Jimenez bleeding and writhing in pain, and Berandine and her team scrambling to pull the curtain on the shocked witnesses and figure out what’s gone wrong.
The incident cracks Bernadine’s normal stoic mask, revealing an isolated, closed-off woman shell-shocked after three years serving as the system’s death-dealer. Haunted by nightmares, she habitually stops by the bar every night for a several belts before going home to her concerned schoolteacher husband (the great Wendell Pierce), who wants them both to retire and mend their relationship. Her pal Chaplain Kendricks (Michael O’Neill) has already decided to retire, and her deputy warden (Richard Gunn) is applying for a warden’s job at a prison that doesn’t have a death row.
Meanwhile, the next execution is already in the works, and it’s a controversial one: Anthony Woods (Aldis Hodge, excellent) was given the death penalty after he was convicted of killing a cop during an armed robbery, although the inmate and his steadfast, world-weary lawyer (Richard Schiff) maintain that Anthony didn’t do the actual shooting. As she prepares Anthony for his final days, Bernadine is emotionally battered on all sides, by the shouting death-penalty protesters in the parking lot, by the victim’s overwrought parents, by Anthony’s emotional ex-girlfriend and by Anthony’s increasingly desperate hope for clemency.
Chukwu’s slow-burn drama – which earned the Grand Jury Prize in the U.S. Dramatic Competition at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival, making the Nigerian-American filmmaker the first black woman to win the the festival’s biggest prize – occasionally threatens to sputter out, but it’s Woodard’s performance that keeps it aflame.
Especially in contrast with Hodge’s showier style, Woodard’s turn is a masterpiece of subtlety, with the smallest changes in her expressive face, sturdy shoulders and striking eyes revealing an often-overlooked aspect of the death penalty: The toll on the public servants tasked with carrying it out.