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Clemency

Posted June 6, 2020 By Curiosity Inc.

I had a totally different movie queued up for today, folks. I won’t say exactly which one, because it looks pretty interesting and I’d very much like to review it soon. But when I went to the website, ready to order a rental, I looked at the sea of white faces in the cast and I just couldn’t do it.

As I type this, the nation is tearing itself apart over grief for George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, two of the latest in a long, LONG line of African-Americans gunned down by police brutality. Floyd was murdered by police in broad daylight because of a counterfeit $20 bill that might well have gotten into his hands by accident. Taylor was murdered in her home, minding her own business, over a no-knock warrant pertaining to a suspect who was already in custody.

Granted, some of the police officers involved have been fired and/or arrested, with trials and investigations still ongoing. Meanwhile, reports are coming in from all over the nation with regards to American citizens getting tear-gassed and viciously beaten while peacefully protesting. An especially notorious case involves police officers in Buffalo who shoved a 75-year-old man to the ground, barely even breaking stride as blood poured from the victim’s head.

Of course there are some bad actors in the protests. I’ve seen footage of property damage and looting during all this, and that should rightfully be condemned. But I can also point to LAPD Chief Michael Moore, who infamously stated “Last night, just under 700 arrests. Of that, just under 70 were for looting and burglarizing.” Which means that ten percent of those arrests were used to justify the other 90 percent who were peacefully protesting. That’s inexcusable. And saying that like it’s something to be proud of is sickening.

What’s even worse is that we’ve been here before too many times in the past decade, long before the current administration. Here’s a list of sixteen people of color killed on the street by police officers, starting with Dontre Hamilton in April of 2014… and ending with Freddie Gray in April of 2015. Sixteen cases in one year, and that list has only grown exponentially longer in the five years since.

Cue the protest, the protesters are all grouped in with violent thugs and terrorists, they get shouted down in a cloud of tear gas, nothing happens, rinse and repeat. We’ve seen this happen repeatedly over the past few years, and we should know damn well by now that it’ll keep happening until something changes on a fundamental nationwide level.

Then came the COVID-19 lockdowns, resulting in a bunch of white people storming state capitols to demand the end of shelter-in-place orders. I don’t remember any reports of the National Guard getting called in to break those up.

Right now, in literally every state in the union, millions of American citizens are risking tear gas, bodily harm, and legal trouble — to say nothing of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic — to demand systemic change and police accountability. Many good friends of mine are marching downtown every night, livestreaming on Facebook to hold police accountable and let everyone else know that they’re safe.

This is a time when people of color and their allies are screaming as loud as they can, literally putting their lives on the line to demand recognition that Black Lives Matter. These protesters are putting their own health at risk, facing violence and persecution, all to lift up the voices of those who’ve been silenced (and/or killed) because of their color, demanding that action FINALLY be taken before another life is taken over nothing at all.

And I’m going to sit here, using my platform to talk about a movie made by a bunch of white people? No way. Not right now. There’s got to be something else.

After a bit of searching, I found Clemency, a film that made the festival rounds last year and saw limited release near the start of 2020. It’s a film about the death penalty, written and directed by Chinonye Chukwu (a black woman) and Alfre Woodard stars.

Sounds perfect. Let’s do this.

Right off the bat, it’s perhaps worth bringing up Just Mercy, a movie from last year about a similar subject matter. Yet it was also a movie that cut away right when the execution was actually carried out. Compare that to this movie, in which the capital punishment is clearly shown in graphic detail.

We see the protests happening outside, hearing them echo through the warden’s office. There are close-up shots of the condemned’s face as he’s getting strapped down. We see the paramedic as he tries and fails numerous times to find a suitable vein. We see the chemicals coursing through the medical tubing on their way to the needle. We even hear the condemned’s heart pounding away on the EKG.

We see the condemned thrashing and coughing in agony through a bloody botched execution, until he finally dies. And we’re only ten minutes in, before the title credits have rolled. Give it to the filmmakers, they let you know early and in no uncertain terms that they’re not fucking around.

The condemned in question is Victor Jimenez (Alex Castillo), and his botched execution just caused a world of pain for the prison warden (Bernadine Williams, played by Alfre Woodard). For one thing, she’s struggling with the trauma of a man dying a horribly painful death right in front of her. For another, there’s the matter of the legal and bureaucratic blowback, as everyone from the State Attorney General on down wants to know why the execution was botched.

And then, of course, there’s the matter of the next execution scheduled to happen in a short time: That of Anthony Woods (Aldis Hodge), convicted of killing a police officer fifteen years ago, and his last shot at appeal fell through. However, given the previous botched execution and certain ambiguities regarding the crime in question, there’s still that potentially treacherous bit of hope that the execution might be stayed.

Oh, and Woods’ mother just passed away, so there’s that to deal with.

The main thrust of the film concerns the multiple contradictions inherent in Bernadine’s job. She repeatedly insists that she treats her prisoners with dignity and respect, even as she keeps them cooped up in prison cells and ushers a few of them (twelve, at last count) to their deaths. She has to maintain a stoic and impersonal demeanor with her prisoners and her staff — in addition to various lawyers, activists, journalists, politicians, etc. — thus keeping her emotions behind an airtight and possibly harmful partition.

In many ways, this is emblematic of the greater contradiction inherent in the death penalty. We claim to be a civilized people, yet we still sentence our own to death. We uphold the illusion that capital punishment — especially by lethal injection — is quick and painless, except that it very clearly isn’t in every single case. How is it possible to kill a human being in a humane way? How do we reconcile our self-image as an upstanding and compassionate society, even with all the blood on our hands?

In Bernadine’s case, she finds a great deal of comfort in her loving husband (Jonathan Williams, played by Wendell Pierce), but the strain on their marriage shows that he can only do so much. She still has insomnia as a result of night terrors. She still goes out drinking every night. And if all else fails, she can always fall back on the tried and true Nuremberg Defense, saying that she’s just doing her job and she’s doing it damn well.

Then there’s the matter of Woods’ attorney (Marty, played by Richard Schiff). We learn early on that Marty has made the choice to retire, and Woods will be his last client. After all, he’s been doing this for 30 years, there’s a new and more tech-savvy generation of lawyers, and he’s done losing his clients to the death penalty. (To say nothing of all the activists protesting the death penalty — I’m sure he’s disappointed them just as many times.) This is only one of many ways in which Bernadine is faced with the possibility that maybe she’s been in this game for too long. More importantly, there’s the possibility that this job is actively harming her and stepping away could do her a lot of good.

Then again, maybe “retiring” means “giving up hope that things will get better”. Moreover, who or what is Bernadine without her job? Who might step in to do the job in her place? Maybe it’ll be someone with less compassion for the prisoners. Which brings us right back to the question of how it’s even possible to be compassionate to humans while keeping them in sub-human conditions.

“But what about the racial aspect?” I kept asking. Well, it’s definitely there, but it’s subtle. Roughly an hour in, there’s a sequence in which Jonathan (he’s a high school teacher, by the way) is reciting Ralph Ellison to his students. And while we’re hearing Wendell Pierce’s baritone talk about the plight of the subjugated black man in metaphorical poetry, we’re treated to extreme close-ups of his students, all of whom are people of color. It gets the point across, but the film could have and probably should have gone into more pointed detail about how the death penalty is disproportionately leveled against people of color.

Yet for better or worse, it’s obvious that the filmmakers weren’t really interested in making any kind of overt political or racial statement. Rather, this film is laser-focused on the deep-seated personal trauma caused by the death penalty. The psychological toll that it takes on the prison staff, the condemned, their families, and so on. Thus by making an explicit statement on a personal level, the film makes an implicit statement on a wider cultural level; not unlike how most war movies talk about the greater horrors of war by focusing on the hellish trials of individual soldiers. That’s actually pretty clever.

This is most plainly obvious in the pacing. It might be described as “slow”, as there are several minutes that might have been shaved off with no harm done. Though honestly, I think “unflinching” might be the better adjective. As with that opening execution scene, the filmmakers make every deliberate effort to put us in the characters’ headspaces.

My personal favorite example comes roughly fifty minutes in — it’s an extended and extreme close-up shot of Woods’ face. We hear Bernadine talking about the last meal, asking if maybe Woods might want seafood, halal, steak and lobster, anything he might want. And the extreme close-up shot makes it perfectly clear that Woods himself is totally checked out. The message is clear: “You’re trying to cheer me up with food before you kill me? Fucking seriously?”

It’s total bullshit how we make all these superficial gestures to comfort the condemned, all of which are really more for our benefit than for theirs. Yet there’s one gesture that matters more than all the others, and may in fact be the one genuine source of comfort: The right to be seen and heard. The knowledge that they are not alone. For whatever it’s worth, the world will know that Anthony Woods existed. People are fighting for him, and people love him. Even if it’s only in his final moments, and even if everyone moves on soon afterward, the world is watching Woods and listening to his every word. That’s more than most of us may ever get.

Clemency makes a fascinating counterpart with Just Mercy. While the latter film was far more overt in its political and racial messages, it was also clearly made as an awards-bait film, wrapped in a friendly package nicely acceptable to Academy voters and mainstream audiences. By contrast, Clemency offers no easy answers. It takes bolder risks and dives deeper into the mindsets of more complicated and nuanced characters. Not only does this allow for the talented cast to turn in more dynamic and compelling performances, but it also shows a side of the death penalty that isn’t often seen or considered in the news or in cinema.

It’s not an easy film to watch, but it’s certainly a timely and maybe even necessary film to watch. I’d recommend it, especially in conjunction with Just Mercy. In addition to Blindspotting and The Hate U Give, two of the most tragically underrated, underseen, and underappreciated films about police brutality made in recent memory.

Additionally, if you can’t go to any of the protests for fear of personal safety (trust me, I’m right there with you), then I hope you at least donate to one of the many bail funds and charities that advocate for people of color. (I personally recommend the Center for Community Change, though you can’t go wrong with the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, ACLU, or Equal Justice Initiative either.) If times are lean and you don’t have the money to give, call your elected representatives and their opponents in the upcoming election.

Right now, in an election year when it feels like the world is on fire, caught between a ruthless pandemic and a government gone mad, we need each other like never before. People of color and the poorest among us — and the overlap between those two groups is unacceptably massive — have always been at the greatest risk and now they need our help more than ever. Silence and the status quo are no longer tolerable, and the next five months are the perfect time to change the world on a massive scale. So as long as you’ve got a voice, make it heard by any means necessary. And as long as you’ve got loved ones, stay healthy and be good to them, for your sake and theirs.

All lives can’t matter until #BlackLivesMatter.