Alfre Woodard strides through the prison halls in "Clemency."

This Oscar season, there has been a devoted contingent arguing for Clemency (ooh, I stumbled into that one!), the death penalty drama that plays this weekend at Grand Berry Theater. I myself have found the film itself falling short of the hype, despite its felicities and its lead performance.

The film begins with Bernadine Williams (Alfre Woodard) overseeing her 12th execution as warden of a maximum-security prison, with an inmate named Jimenez (Alex Castillo) scheduled to die. The execution is botched, and the observers are treated to the spectacle of blood and poison leaking out of a horribly convulsing Jimenez, whose death is the only part of the procedure that comes out right. No sooner does that happen than she has to preside over another one, an inmate named Anthony Woods (Aldis Hodge) who has been convicted of killing a cop, though there’s reason to believe his assertions that his partner in crime pulled the trigger. If the public pressure surrounding the case isn’t enough, her high-school English teacher husband (Wendell Pierce) issues an ultimatum that he’ll leave her if she doesn’t leave her job.

Writer-director Chinonye Chukwu has made one another feature film, alaskaLand, which I haven’t seen. She employs a slow-rolling rhythm to the scenes that occasionally gives the film great power, as in that aforementioned opening scene and in another one when Woods has an episode in his cell and tries to kill himself by smashing his head into the brick wall. Elsewhere, though, it leads to too many arid spots in the film. The nightmare sequences in which Bernadine imagines herself strapped to the gurney in her prison don’t have the phantasmagoric power that they should. Everybody around her seems to be retiring — her husband, Anthony’s defense lawyer (Richard Schiff), the prison chaplain (Michael O’Neill) — and the filmmaker can’t seem to give that the thematic resonance that it’s supposed to. The fact that Anthony is probably innocent of the crime he’s going to be executed for lends the story pathos, but robs it of the complexity that last generation’s great death-penalty drama, Dead Man Walking, had.


As for Woodard, she is a great actress who has been shamefully underused, and whose résumé does not match her abilities as a result. (I mean, did The Core or Annabelle really require her services?) She finally snagged a showcase role just before the previous decade — a decade marked by the achievements of African-American filmmakers — expired, and while she does admirable work, it doesn’t give the film the catharsis that Chukwu is evidently looking for. Better performances come from Hodge as a man trying to cope with the injustice of his predicament and Danielle Brooks as the mother of his child, who makes the best of an overwritten scene where she visits him. I still recall the hilarious deadpan comic performance she gave in Miss Firecracker and the fire-slinging she did on her guest shot on TV’s Homicide: Life on the Street. There are no signs that she has lost any of her sharpness or fluency 36 years after her first and only Oscar nomination. Clemency was a chance to give that a platform, but it looks like a blown chance.


Starring Alfre Woodard and Aldis Hodge. Written and directed by Chinonye Chukwu. Rated R.