Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Thu Mar 14, 2019 6:14 pm 
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A blunt instrument of a film that's a powerful indictment of capital punishment and death row practices

Clemency is a film that seems so long I thought it ought to be a mini-series - or an opera. Powerful but rather heavy-handed, it is full of drama and full of woe, and there is one long, loud wail that might be more ennobling and memorable as an aria. This is a story "ripped from the headlines." The new California governor, Gavin Newsom, has just announced a moratorium on capital punishment in the state. The lengthy delays everywhere satisfy opponents of the death penalty, but are agonizing. So is the method of "lethal injection"- used at the prison in Clemency, which is headed by a black woman warden, Bernadine Williams (veteran actress Alfre Woodard, magnificent in this plum role), who has administered too many executions. Her marriage has come to a standstill. She drinks. Her rigid insistence that she is doing the right thing is frozen against her secret, inner awareness that it is all very, very wrong.

To make this blatantly clear, debut director Chinonye Chukwu provides an excruciating prologue depicting the botched execution of a Hispanic prisoner, Victor Jimenez (Alex Castillo), where the paramedic assigned to kill him can't find a working vein and keeps stabbing the man in more and more painful places until he writhes and screams in agony. (This has indeed happened.)

The focus shifts in the rest of the movie on another condemned man, a convicted cop killer Anthony Woods (Aldis Hodge, in another incredibly rich role), and we see him go through the gamut of emotions with Bernadine, a priest, his beleaguered lawyer Marty Lumetta (Richard Schiff of "The West Wing"), who, like the warden, has come to the end of his tether; and a long-missing wife and hitherto unknown son. Woods' story is one of endless tormenting dashed hopes. The case against him and the jury conviction seem to have disintegrated. That seems not to matter to the prison system. But it may matter to the governor, who, we're repeatedly told, can stay execution up to the very last minute.

The thrust of the film, which was also written by Chukwu, is to show the intolerable burden the capital punishment system imposes on everyone. This is a grim and powerful work. The acting is superb. But it, like Steve McQueen's Twelve Years a Slave, seems to revel in the punishment it metes out on the hapless viewers, rendering us too benumbed to do the intellectual work the complex issues demand of us. When it is not browbeating us, it is often lecturing us, as when Bernadine's estranged husband Jonathan (Wendell Pierce), a schoolteacher, is shown reading an extended passage from Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man.

The racial aspects of this story are hinted at, but not directly addressed. It's impossible not to think, when forced to contemplate for nearly two hours the cruel and ruthless punishment meted out on a black man for killing a putatively white cop, how aware even white people are now of the impunity with which American cops, mostly white, daily kill black men.

Clemency, 113 mins., debuted at Sundance, winning the Grand Jury Prize for U.S Dramatic films at the festival, first win of this award by a black woman director. Reviewed at Sundance by Amy Nicholson for Variety and by David Rooney for Playlist, and IndieWire. Screened for this review as part of New Directors/New Films, Mar. 2019 at Lincoln Center and MoMA. New York Premiere.

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