“No Bad Guys”: Clemency

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“It’s my job.”

Chinonye Chukwu’s 2019 film Clemency, starring Alfre Woodard, examines the way this sentiment can be twisted to justify horrific behavior and unjust systems. Woodard plays Bernadine Williams, a prison warden who carries out executions. The film begins with a botched execution and follows Bernadine as she moves towards the next one, a highly public case where the man (Aldis Hodge) in question is largely thought to be innocent. As Bernadine faces public and private scrutiny, she continues to figuratively wash her hands of the issue- after all, she’s just doing her job.

It’s fascinating to compare Clemency to another 2019 movie, Just Mercy. There are plenty of differences between them of course- Clemency is fiction, Just Mercy is based on a true story and on the life of still-living attorney and advocate Bryan Stevenson. Clemency takes place in the present, Just Mercy in the past. Just Mercy speaks explicitly on race and interrogates a “justice” system that imprisons black men at a disproportionately high rate. Clemency, which stars a black woman as a warden and a black man as a prisoner, is full of interesting implications, but never explicitly talks about race. Yet they are both about the prison industrial complex, and specifically, capital punishment. Just Mercy is focused on the prisoner- in this case, wrongfully accused Walter McMillian- and his relentless, righteous lawyer Stevenson. In Just Mercy, little time is spent thinking about those working on the side of the system. Particularly since the film is about race and how racism played into McMillians’ wrongful conviction in 1980’s Alabama, there seems to be a clear right and wrong. The prosecutors, the prison guards- all presented as clear-cut representatives of a broken system, who are therefore complicit. 

But we are all complicit in all sorts of injustice. There is corruption and sin in every industry, no matter how seemingly neutral or even moral your job or workplace is. Most of us end up playing a game about the degree of separation; how close am I to the injustice? Surely if, say, I work at a retail store where I know the clothes we make use child labor overseas, I can take comfort in the fact that there is enough separation between me and the CEO or the foreman in the factory allowing that to happen. I’m alleviated of guilt.

Right?

The frustration and helplessness as we come to grips with the reality that everything we touch is stained and contaminated can feel overwhelming, so we dull ourselves to it. We turn a blind eye, we cope, we disassociate, we tell ourselves stories. And it is true, we can’t fix everything. But instead of allowing that to turn us towards lament, we turn to paralysis or detachment. 

Just Mercy is a great movie (and an even better book). But Clemency, the more understated spiritual sibling to Just Mercy, is a critical companion piece to getting a fuller and more nuanced understanding of the justice system and our state-sanctioned executions. Clemency is focused on the other side, those prosecutors and guards, as well as those people’s loved ones, who serve as instruments of the state. It suggests that those who work in the prison system have a form of PTSD and suffer alongside the prisoners in being a part of a system that dehumanizes everyone involved, a system that seems too big and unwieldy to ever fix. The film departs upon the viewer a wariness, a weight that you feel alongside Bernadine. From the nauseating first sequence to the chilling final one, the movie plunges you into the quickly dulling psyche and spirit of Woodard’s Bernadine as she desperately tries to cope and detach from her escalating guilt and ambivalence. 

Alfre Woodard carries the entire film effortlessly. She conveys a multitude of emotions with just a glance or a sigh. She strikes an intimidating figure, making it clear how Bernadine got to the position of warden, but she always leaves a vulnerable underbelly for the audience to see. Woodard is also able to establish, without the script ever drawing direct attention to it, that Bernadine is experiencing clear signs of trauma- nightmares, detachment, hypervigilance and sensitivity, avoidance, numbness. You can see her choosing to deaden her spirit, moment by moment, rather than fully comprehend all of the implications of what her job requires. In the final sequence, we see that spirit leave her altogether. 

“It’s my job” has been a justification for all sorts of horrific evil. But instead of self-righteous indignation towards Bernadine and the work she does, Clemency takes an observational, non-judgmental eye and instead focuses on the effect the work has on her soul. Clemency rises above feeling like an “issue” movie, yet whether it intends to or not, it offers a critical perspective needed for advocacy and greater awareness of the issue of capital punishment and criminal justice reform.  

– Madeleine D. 

P.S- 

I’m from Oklahoma, where we lead the country with the highest incarceration rate and rank #3 in executions. We also have the highest rate of female incarceration, which just keeps growing. If you’re interested in learning more about programs that offer support and counsel to female inmates, I highly recommend reading about the work of (and consider donating to) the following two Tulsa-based nonprofits. I’ve had the pleasure of getting to meet with some of the leadership of both nonprofits and see some of their operations, and I admire the outcome-driven, strategic work they are doing. 

Still She Rises– Provides comprehensive legal representation to indigent women in the criminal and civil legal system.

Women in Recovery – Intensive outpatient alternative for eligible women facing long prison sentences for non-violent drug-related offenses. The 18-month program focuses on each client’s holistic needs, including rehabilitation, therapy, legal counsel, family reunification, and job training/workplace readiness.

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