Clemency review – Alfre Woodard quietly dazzles in this superb death row dramaJuly 19, 2020
Woodard plays a conflicted prison warden slowly unravelling in writer-director Chinonye Chukwu’s remarkable film
Amid the many oversights of January’s Oscar nominations, Alfre Woodard’s absence from the best actress shortlist was particularly telling. Having earned a supporting actress nomination for Cross Creek in the 80s, Woodard hit a career high in this deceptively low-key death row drama from writer-director Chinonye Chukwu, who last year became the first black woman to win the US dramatic grand jury prize at Sundance. As the warden in a maximum security prison facing a crisis of faith in her work and her life, Woodard is brilliantly measured and understated, a quality that (as Michael B Jordan’s similarly snubbed performance in Just Mercy proved) rarely attracts Oscar attention.
Woodard plays Bernadine Williams, who prides herself on treating her inmates with dignity as they move through incarceration to whatever awaits – whether that be freedom or death. From the prison gates, the chants of protesters provide a constant background noise, which she zones out even as it seeps into her office. Yet Bernadine is having doubts about the death penalty – doubts that turn into cold-sweat fears when a botched procedure reveals the true horror of execution.