Sundance 2019 Review: Alfre Woodard Is Oscar Worthy in Clemency

It’s no secret that ageism towards older actresses in Hollywood is a legit problem. However, one faction of that problem that feels rather ignored is ageism towards actresses of color. As they get older, it becomes more difficult than it already is for them to land prominent film roles. But thankfully, Chinonye Chukwu, the writer/director of Clemency, cast veteran actress Alfre Woodard in a role that gives her plenty to sink her teeth into. Not only does she do the best work of her career in Clemency but she delivers a performance that should already put in next year’s race for Best Actress.

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Alfre Woodard plays Bernadine Williams, a prison warden who oversees the executions of her prisoners. To her, these executions are just a part of her occupation. Although she becomes heckled with protestors when she goes into her workplace each day, she still goes on with her daily routine which includes making sure the inmates are accommodated before they are put to death. However, once she faces the execution of another inmate named Anthony Woods (Aldis Hodge), she begins to psychologically unravel. She begins to confront her personal demons along with her crumbling marriage with her husband (Wendell Pierce).

Watching various lives perish right before Bernadine’s eyes has taken quite a toll on her. It’s affected her to the point where she builds walls between herself and everyone around her and appears more detached than she is. However, even when Bernadine feels compassion or attempts to show it, she quickly brushes that off so that people don’t see her fragility. As a character, Bernadine is a walking contradiction and her rampant feelings of vulnerability and reserve are perfectly illustrated on Alfre Woodard’s expressive face. Instead of going for bombastic emotion and begging for our sentimentality, Woodard instead lets us see how Bernadine processes the burdening mundaneness of her daily routine in just her silence.

Woodard is the strong center of a character study that basically shows us that prison wardens can get emotional, too. The tasks they’re dealt with may be viewed as just part of the job to them yet they can still feel sympathy for those that suffer from their hands or the hands of the system they work for. Thankfully, the film never becomes preachy about the topic of the death penalty. However, there is plenty of insight into how the film’s incoming execution affects not just Bernadine but people like Anthony and his lawyer (Richard Schiff) who fights for his release.

Not to mention, Aldis Hodge is quite a standout as Anthony. Similarly to Woodard, his feelings of anguish and vulnerability are expressed in his silence. Because Anthony’s fate hangs in the balance throughout the film, Hodge can make us fear for him with just a tearful outcry. As it turns out, he’s the heart and soul of the movie as much as Woodard is.

Because the film is such a silent slow burn, it might not work for everyone. But Clemency is still worth watching for the strong performances from Aldis Hodge and especially leading actress Alfre Woodard who should be in the conversation for Best Actress. The film’s final shot alone, which focuses entirely on her expressive face, makes her worthy of consideration.

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Matthew St.Clair

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