As a part of the past weekend’s Athena Film Festival, Bwogger Solomia Dzhaman attended and was deeply moved by Chinonye Chukwu’s Clemency.

When you think of the current American prison system, the word feminism doesn’t immediately come to mind. A story about a prison warden executing prisoners was surprising to see on a lineup of liberal-skewing female-empowering films. But despite the surface-level description, Clemency fits right in alongside other Athena Film Festival films.

The first five minutes are perhaps the most gruesome moments of the film: Warden Bernadine Williams (Alfre Woodard) supervises her twelfth execution, a man named Victor Jimenez. Unfortunately, the execution fails. Bernadine, along with a room full of witnesses and Jimenez’s mother, watches as Jimenez goes into cardiac arrest.

A word appears on the screen – the title, Clemency. The audience does not yet know what it refers to, but in the next scenes, it becomes increasingly clear.

As the title fades into the distance, we learn that another date approaches: the execution of prisoner Anthony Woods (Aldis Hodge). The case of Anthony Woods, who is hoping to be granted clemency by the state governor, takes up the bulk of the film. It is revealed that his arrest was murky, and that likely he was wrongfully convicted. Bernadine meets with lawyers, family members, activists. She returns to her suburban home to watch the case play out every night on television. Bernadine watches herself become villainized for a decision out of her hands, and on top of it all, she cannot sleep. Her dreams are plagued by nightmares of Jimenez, the prison, and being executed. Her relationship with her school-teacher husband disintegrates, and she begins to slowly lose her grip.

Parallel to Bernadine, Woods reveals his thoughts and abilities. He is an artist. He continues to love his ex-girlfriend. He misses his late mother. He spends his days contemplating what to do, how to reckon with a death sentence. He is told by his lawyer not to lose hope, but not to get his hopes up too high. As the date looms closer, Bernadine is forced to confront Woods more and more – asking him about funeral arrangements, his last meal, discussing the process of the execution. Both characters are counting down the days to the seemingly inevitable, both hoping for clemency, for relief.

Both lead actors had incredible emotional depth and range, without overacting. In an especially powerful scene, as Woods begins to harm himself, Hodge portrays agony and desperation in a convincing and heart-wrenching way. Similarly, in one scene, all Woodard does is walk and stare, but it conveys an entire range of feeling – agony, helplessness, and ultimate loss of hope.

As for Chinonye Chukwu, her writing and directing prowess shone through with this film. The sparse use of color, ominous orchestral music, and sweeping shots of the prison landscape helped set a tone of bleakness. Although much of the film was about internal struggle, it was always clear as to what the character was experiencing, and what their motivations were.

Critiques of the prison system have been the subject of literature and art as old as prisons themselves. From Native Son to Orange Is the New Black, the American prison system and especially its treatment and over-incarceration of black people has been examined and re-examined. Clemency is different because it tells the story from the perspective of a warden. Not as a hero figure, but also not as a villain. The job and role of the warden is given its own complex analysis, and it humanizes prison wardens.

If the goal of the Athena Film Festival is to “tell the extraordinary stories of fierce and fearless women leaders” (quoted from the website) it certainly achieves it – the multidimensional story of Bernadine Williams is an exploration of a fierce woman’s struggles with her own morals.

I won’t spoil the ending, because I think not knowing it was part of what made it so powerful. It had me personally reeling for the rest of the day. When I left the theatre and tried to catch up on some homework, I found that I couldn’t even focus on a math problem set. All I could think about was the ending scene, and the implications of the last ten minutes of the film. The emotional tension in the room was palpable, and throughout the film, I think I heard a few sobs. It was a raw and emotionally draining experience, but one that achieves its goal – a goal of showing the psychological burden of cold-blooded murder.

Image via Bwarchives