Clemency (Chinonye Chukwu, 2019)
Historically, black women have carried a double burden, fitting into two minority groups: people of color and women. Very recently, though, the film industry is paying more attention to the power of the stereotypical depictions of black women in films. It is very reasonable that Clemency, a picture directed by a female black filmmaker in which a black woman is not depicted as domineering matriarchs or exotic sexual objects, raises attention from the audience and the critics. In fact, Clemency won the top prize at Sundance Film Festival. But here's a challenge I want to propose: try not to go to the movies with this mindset. Open your eyes to what this piece of art is telling, and forget that it was conducted by a female Afro-American.
Clemency has a distinguishable storyline. It opens with experienced prison warden Bernadine Williams overseeing a lethal injection that goes wrong. The opening scene, and the movie as a whole, does not give any explanation if the prisoner in the death row is guilty or not. His past is not important. What is crucial is Bernadine's hesitation: is she doing the right thing?
Bernadine is consistent: she keeps denying lawyer Marty (Richard Schiff) pleas to do right to his possibly last client. The client is another black character, prisoner Anthony Woods (Aldis Hodge, in a superb performance), who's been kept away from his family for 15 years. Curiously, Bernadine's tenacity to perform well her job is leading her to a crossroads. Everyone around her is quitting -- her friend lawyer is about to retire, her co-worker Thomas (Richard Gunn) is applying for a post in which he won't have to deal with death row prisoners anymore, her husband Jonathan (Wendell Pierce) leaves home. Nevertheless, Bernadine only escapes to the local pub, in a clear attempt not to face the trouble. Those prisoners will die, and she is powerless.
Powerless is stressed throughout the movie. One of the most subtle scenes is a sex scene with Bernadine and Jonathan, which ends prematurely because of Jonathan's erectile dysfunction. I tried to access my pull memory in vain. I could not remember any other film that portrays an erectile dysfunction, apart from Blue Velvet (David Lynch, 1986). In Blue Velvet, is a consequence of violence and asthma; here it is a landscape to the main character. Bernadine rests in dysfunction.
Whilst Clemency presents something new as it provides an opposing narrative to the popularized films about oppression; we are still dealing with oppression, a new kind of oppression. An oppression of the soul; a suffocation of choices; an act of surrender. The cinematic production has significance to black spectators, but not only to them. At a certain point, Bernadine realises she is alone and that nobody can fix it. The film is a loud cry for a change: how can we fix a system that condemns people to death?
Clemency is part of London Film Festival 2019. Check dates and times here.