2019, Movies

Clemency (2019, Chinonye Chukwu)

This is a no frills drama about a prison warden slowly changing her attitude towards the death penalty. For an American film it’s extremely refreshing in its realism and its lack of typical Hollywood cliches in this type of material.

If there’s a score or a soundtrack (the latter of which is listed on IMDB) I don’t recall it. This film is pretty free of the types of dressing that usually accompany American films involving the execution of (likely) innocent men. The (apparent?) lack of a score and the unglamourous portrait of everyone involved makes the film feel far more realistic than most of these types of movies I’ve seen.

The cast is excellent, whether it’ss Woodward in the lead role or whether its the support, from Schiff (who looks even more tired than Woodward) to Pierce (really playing against type here) to the people I don’t really recognize, or the ’90s TV sitcom veterans who make a brief appearance -Mr. Belding and Will Smith’s mom from The Fresh Prince!

I have two quibbles, one of which I’m not really sure about and one of which I’m pretty sure about.

Are wardens really this hands-on? It likely depends upon the prison. And, in particular, I suspect there are massive differences between state-run prisons and private prisons. (I can imagine private-run prisons do not have hands-on wardens.) But Woodward’s character feels a little too hands-on. I know I’ve praised the “realism” of the film, but this is one of two instances in which I’m not sure how realistic the film is.

The other thing that doesn’t quite ring true is Woods’ literacy. He’s been in jail for a long time (between 1-2 decades) but he feels educated to me. Now, maybe the implicit backstory is that he has been educating himself or maybe this was supposed to have happened to someone who is particularly bright. But if there’s one character in this film who feels “Hollywood” its Woods. This is especially true in his speech but it’s true of most interactions he has with Schiff’s character (save one). I have listened to a lot of interviews with wrongfully imprisoned people over the last 5 years and very few of them talk like this.

But I think it’s a minor quibble. And a film is still a film, after all – there has to be some level of unreality for the purpose of drama. Everything else about the film works and it’s so refreshing to watch an American film about this subject which refuses the Hollywood ending.


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