Inside a dehumanising, emotionally destructive job on death row

Wendy Lloyd watches drama film Clemency on Curzon Home Cinema.

Cinema’s longstanding fascination with America’s death row has produced numerous masterpieces, including Dead Man Walking and The Green Mile. Lauded for their moving depictions of injustice and redemption, whether based on real life, as in the former, or a fantasy crime novel, such as the latter, they have, however, rarely focussed on the people within the judicial system tasked with actually carrying out these controversial executions. Now, Clemency turns the spotlight fully on these integral yet arguably overlooked individuals, and reveals their mental and emotional fallout that is an inevitable by-product of the prison system.

Outstanding in this long overdue starring role, Alfre Woodard is Bernadine, the prison warden managing and personally overseeing death by lethal injection. When an execution goes horribly wrong, however, it is not only the prisoner but also those responsible for carrying out the sentence that are visibly distressed. As the story unfolds we understand this event as a final straw for Bernadine. She is suffering PTSD nightmares and regularly drinking heavily at the local bar, thereby avoiding home and her crumbling marriage. In well-crafted and emotionally complex scenes, we come to understand that rather than being cold and insensitive to his wife’s travails, husband Jonathan’s (Wendell Pierce) patience has long been tested; he is resigned to no longer reaching his increasingly disconnected wife.  

Indeed, Bernadine’s fragility is internalised carefully in all that she does, with her cool exterior only slipping after a few drinks at the bar. Tellingly, the film is subtly bookended with Bernadine disconnecting from her identity as warden at significantly emotional moments. In both scenes a prison colleague tries to get her attention, calling ‘warden’ twice; it is only when they say ‘Bernadine’ she turns, suggesting an emotional rupture and failure to maintain the reserved detachment of her ‘warden’ role. The implication, then, is that whilst dehumanisation is key to professional survival, its cost of course is loss of self. So long, therefore, as Bernadine retains her emotional capacity, the system has not obliterated her. However, as her need to detach wrestles with her increasingly ravaged unconscious, her deteriorating mental health seems inevitable.

Key to Clemency’s theme of dehumanisation is how substantially Bernadine’s character has been drawn by writer/director Chinonye Chukwu, and then performed by Woodard: both are spot on. Bernadine’s emotional difficulty with her professional duties is not because she is a woman, but because the job itself is universally emotionally destructive. Indeed, the film is a quietly focussed depiction of how being a part of the prison-industrial complex dehumanises everyone involved. We see a lawyer and the prison Chaplain both confess that their pending retirements can’t come soon enough, and all three characters epitomise how their vocations’ alignment with state sanctioned murder has devastated them. In a key but understated scene Bernadine listens implacably to the lawyer on the radio reeling off reasons why his client’s conviction is clearly unsafe. Bernadine is seemingly immune to his plea; arguably finding her remit challenging enough without complicating it with considerations of justice, and the guilt, or otherwise, of her charges. Essentially, the system has used up and spat out any compassionate optimism these characters might have formerly embodied; their tasks have proved thankless and dehumanising: be it spiritually comforting the condemned, fighting for unlikely justice, or controlling the manner of inmates’ final moments.

Chukwu really shows her credentials here as an activist on issues of incarceration, having embedded herself in prison appeals and made films to support cases whilst researching Clemency. In so doing, she has created a significant cinematic representation of the modern prison system and those who struggle with their roles within it, and became the first black woman to win the Grand Jury prize at Sundance last year. 

Clemency is a consummate immersion into the day to day reality of a system whereby individuals must oversee the death of others, and Chukwu’s tone for portraying this is astutely quiet and still. Whilst noisy aggressive tension has become the standard onscreen representation of prison life, here there is a physical emptiness that mirrors the hollowed-out characters’ despair. The prison is noticeably quiet: interactions are one to one and in isolation, providing space to consider the characters’ thoughts which bounce around their confinement.

Chukwu doesn’t neglect the vital prisoner experience here, and Woods (Aldis Hodge) is a powerful moving depiction of death row hopelessness and dignity. This film, however, is fervently about the psychological fall-out for those who must enact the reality of death sentences born of dispassionate legal minutiae; who must rationalise some kind of existential survival mechanism so that they might navigate their heinous professional obligations. Clemency suggests this is an impossible task, and in doing so, provides a powerful argument against the continuation of the death sentence in 21st century America and beyond. 

-       Clemency is available on Curzon Home Cinema

-       Wendy Lloyd is a film critic with a degree in Psychology from the Open University. She is currently studying an MSc in Culture and Society at LSE.

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