Most arguments against capital punishment are based on morality—that there is a right to life. But Clemency gives many social psychological reasons—how killing one person in fact corrodes the lives of many others. Directed by Chinonye Chukwu, the focus in Clemency is on unsmiling yet composed Bernadine Williams (played by Alfre Woodard), a Black woman who is the warden on a death row where many inmates are Black or Latino. Rather than recounting the story, which lacks a happy ending, here is a list of some of the tragic consequences:

  • The warden feels responsible for the deaths because she alone gives the order to proceed.
  • Several prison officials have to strap down the person for the execution.
  • Some prison officials are so bothered that they cannot proceed and have to be reassigned.
  • The warden must inform convicts when they will die, ask what they want for their last meal.
  • Convicts may attempt to commit suicide and require urgent care.
  • The warden and witnesses hear final words just before execution.
  • Witnesses cry as they see their loved ones die.
  • A paramedic and others watch how 3 injections do not work promptly, inducing extreme torture before death.
  • The warden then has to pull the curtain over the visible agony.
  • A co-worker tries to give support to the warden by joining her for drinks after work.
  • The warden gets so drunk after a day of work that a co-worker once drives her home.
  • The warden receives pleas for clemency from relatives of persons on death row.
  • The warden hears pleas for clemency from protesters outside her office window.
  • The warden hears pleas for clemency from a longsuffering attorney.
  • The warden has nightmares and cannot sleep with her loving husband.
  • The warden and her husband almost break up. He says she is an “empty shell.”
  • The convict’s wife never visits, making him feel isolated and unworthy.
  • The convict’s wife harbors a secret that she was pregnant when he was arrested.
  • The convict does not know until almost the end that his wife gave birth to a son.
  • The convict’s attorney repeatedly tries to give hope despite repeated failure of appeals.
  • Witnesses recant court testimony but are ignored.
  • Judges respond to many appeals but reject them all, even when possibly justified.
  • The warden has to proceed with the execution, though the convict might be innocent.
  • Governors are required to review all death penalty cases for possible clemency.
  • The prison’s pastor has to try to comfort those on death row, something impossible.

Some scenes contain periods of extended silence so that filmviewers have to process the inhumanity involved at almost every step of the way. Clemency, a story inspired by the 2011 execution of Troy Davis, a Black man convicted of killing a police officer in Georgia, warrants a Political Film Society nomination for best film on human rights of 2019.  MH

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