Stoic prison warden Bernadine Williams (Alfre Woodard) is psychologically and emotionally exhausted after years of overseeing death-row executions.
“I do my job,” she says. “I give these men respect all the way through.”
But as she’s supervising the execution of a condemned inmate, the carefully-rehearsed procedure goes awry when a harried paramedic struggles to find a viable vein through which to administer the lethal injection.
Shortly afterwards, another inmate is scheduled for execution. Convicted of killing a policeman during a convenience store robbery 15 years earlier, Anthony Woods (Aldis Hodge) sits wordlessly in his cell as his lawyer (Richard Schiff) pursues a last-minute pardon from the Governor.
After Warden Williams calmly explains the protocol of exactly how he will be executed, traumatized Woods tries to commit suicide by forcefully banging his head into the wall.
Meanwhile, the inscrutable Warden’s steely dedication to her job has jeopardized her marriage; her school teacher husband (Wendell Pierce) is planning to retire and begging her to join him.
As founder of a filmmaking collective dedicated to teaching and empowering incarcerated women, writer/director Chinonya Chukwu spent four years researching exactly what happened before and after the 2011 execution of Troy Davis.
“We visited four prisons and met with female wardens, listening to their stories,” Alfre Woodard explains. “What we found is that their PTSD rate is as high as people we sent into battle for multiple tours of duty. If they marry, their marriages rarely survive. They keep to themselves in a way, because no one can understand what they do.”
While Woodard delivers a masterfully restrained performance, the film is excruciating to watch. The point is how enforcing the death penalty not only dehumanizes the condemned but also takes a spiritual toll on those who carry out the execution.
On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, Clemency is an agonizingly grim 4, challenging society’s sense of justice.