Clemency (film)

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Clemency poster.jpg
Theatrical release poster
Directed byChinonye Chukwu
Written byChinonye Chukwu
Produced by
  • Bronwyn Cornelius
  • Julian Cautherley
  • Peter Wong
  • Timur Bekbosunov
CinematographyEric Branco
Edited byPhyllis Housen
Music byKathryn Bostic
  • ACE Pictures
  • Big Indie Pictures
  • Bronwyn Cornelius Productions
Distributed byNeon
Release dates
  • January 27, 2019 (2019-01-27) (Sundance)
  • December 27, 2019 (2019-12-27) (United States)
Running time
113 minutes
CountryUnited States
Box office$364,952[1][2]

Clemency is a 2019 American drama film written and directed by Chinonye Chukwu. The film stars Alfre Woodard as Bernadine Williams, a death row prison warden. It also stars Richard Schiff, Danielle Brooks, Michael O'Neill, Richard Gunn, Wendell Pierce, and Aldis Hodge.

Clemency had its world premiere at the Sundance Film Festival, where it won the Grand Jury Prize for U.S. Dramatic Competition, on January 27, 2019 and was theatrically released in the United States by Neon on December 27, 2019. The film received acclaim from critics, who lauded Woodard's performance, as well as Chukwu's direction and screenplay. It earned nominations for Best Feature, Best Female Lead (for Woodard), and Best Screenplay (for Chukwu) at the 35th Independent Spirit Awards and Best Actress in a Leading Role (for Woodard) at the 74th British Academy Film Awards.


Warden Bernadine Williams oversees the execution of inmate Victor Jimenez alongside the prison chaplain David Kendricks. The attending medical officer fails to find an adequate arm vein and begins to panic. Bernadine gives the medical officer permission to use the femoral vein. The execution goes awry and Victor writhes on the table before his heart finally stops.

One of Bernadine's inmates is Anthony Woods, a quiet man who continues to maintain his innocence and refuses to talk to Bernadine when she visits his cell on death row. Bernadine is well acquainted with Anthony's lawyer, Marty, who has been fighting to free his client for the past seven years. Bernadine learns through Marty that Anthony has lost his final appeal. She begins to make preparations for his death. At home, Bernadine suffers from insomnia and recurring nightmares.

While she maintains an outwardly calm and professional appearance, she struggles emotionally, drinking heavily after work and feuding with her husband, Jonathan. Jonathan, a high school teacher, wants Bernadine to quit her job as he sees how heavily her work has been weighing on her. After an argument on the night of their wedding anniversary, Jonathan leaves Bernadine and checks into a motel.

Anthony receives a letter from his former girlfriend Evette, informing him that he is a father. He consents to see her during visiting hours, where she reveals that she hid her pregnancy from him and raised their son with another man because it was a better life for their child than with a father on death row. She offers to let Anthony see his son before he is executed.

Having exhausted the number of court appeals, Marty files an appeal hoping for a last minute pardon from the state governor. He makes television appearances and continues to visit Anthony often. Bernadine visits Chaplain Kendricks and asks him to not give up on Anthony. Jonathan returns home and reconciles but Bernadine continues to keep her emotions to herself.

On the day of his execution, Anthony waits for Evette and his son but they fail to show up. Bernadine leaves voicemails on Evette's phone to no avail. As Marty and Chaplain Kendricks offer Anthony solace, the governor's office calls the prison to inform they will not grant clemency.

Anthony is escorted to the execution room and strapped into the execution table. In his final statement, Anthony speaks to Mr. and Mrs. Collins, the parents of the man he was convicted of murdering. He expresses sorrow for their loss and reasserts his innocence. He thanks Marty and Chaplain Kendricks for their help throughout the years. Bernadine weeps as she watches him die.




Chukwu was inspired to write the film after the widely protested execution of Troy Davis in Georgia in 2011. Her six years of research included running a film programme for inmates in Ohio and advocating for retrials in unsafe cases.[3]


The film had its world premiere at the Sundance Film Festival on January 27, 2019.[4] It won the U.S. Dramatic Grand Jury Prize there, making Chukwu the first black woman to win the award.[5] Shortly after, Neon acquired distribution rights to the film.[6] It screened at the San Diego International Film Festival on October 18, 2019.[7] It was released on December 27, 2019.[8]


Critical response[edit]

On Rotten Tomatoes, the film has an approval rating of 91% based on 152 reviews, with an average rating of 7.8/10. The site's consensus reads: "Clemency mines serious social issues for gripping drama, brought to life by an outstanding cast led by Alfre Woodard."[9] On Metacritic, the film has a weighted average score of 77 out of 100, based on 31 critics, indicating "generally favorable reviews."[10]

Matt Fagerholm of gave the film 4 out of 4 stars and wrote: "It’s clear that Bernadine desires to reclaim her wholeness, returning to the bliss she once had with her husband, but as she recoils from his touch, we realize that her soul remains locked in the prison even during her off-hours."[11] He also celebrated Alfre Woodard's performance as Bernadine Williams, stating: "You can literally spot the moment when her soul appears to have left her body. This is screen acting of a very rare sort, and “Clemency” is a vital emotional powerhouse sorely deserving of being seen."[11]

Eric Kohn of IndieWire gave the film an "A–" and wrote: "Writer-director Chinonye Chukwu's second feature maintains the quiet, steady rhythms of a woman so consumed by her routine that by the end of the opening credits, it appears to have consumed her humanity as well."[12]


Award Date of ceremony Category Recipient(s) and nominee(s) Result Ref(s)
Sundance Film Festival February 2, 2019 U.S. Dramatic Grand Jury Prize Chinonye Chukwu Won [13]
Seattle International Film Festival June 9, 2019 Best Actress Alfre Woodard Second place [14]
Best Actor Aldis Hodge Fourth Place
Philadelphia Film Festival October 17, 2019 Best Local Feature Chinonye Chukwu Won [15]
Gotham Awards December 2, 2019 Best Actress Alfre Woodard Nominated [16]
Best Actor Aldis Hodge Nominated
Casting Society of America January 30, 2020 Low Budget – Comedy or Drama Kerry Barden, Paul Schnee, Roya Semnanian Nominated [17]
Black Reel Awards February 6, 2020 Outstanding Independent Film Chinonye Chukwu, Timur Bekbosunov, Julian Cautherley, Bronwyn Cornelius and Peter Wong Nominated [18]
Outstanding Actress Alfre Woodard Nominated
Outstanding Supporting Actor Aldis Hodge Nominated
Outstanding Breakthrough Performance, Male Nominated
Outstanding Screenplay, Adapted or Original Chinonye Chukwu Nominated
Outstanding Emerging Director Nominated
Outstanding First Screenplay Nominated
Independent Spirit Awards February 8, 2020 Best Feature Timur Bekbosunov, Julian Cautherley, Bronwyn Cornelius and Peter Wong Nominated [19]
Best Female Lead Alfre Woodard Nominated
Best Screenplay Chinonye Chukwu Nominated
NAACP Image Awards February 22, 2020 Outstanding Independent Motion Picture Clemency Nominated [20]
Outstanding Actress in a Motion Picture Alfre Woodard Nominated
Outstanding Writing in a Motion Picture Chinonye Chukwu Nominated
British Academy Film Awards April 11, 2021 Best Actress in a Leading Role Alfre Woodard Nominated [21]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Clemency (2019)". Box Office Mojo. Retrieved April 13, 2021.
  2. ^ "Clemency (2019)". The Numbers. Retrieved April 13, 2021.
  3. ^ Adams, Tim (July 19, 2020). "Alfre Woodard: 'We want all those with a stake in the death row business to see this film'". The Guardian.
  4. ^ "Sundance Unveils Politics-Heavy Lineup Featuring Ocasio-Cortez Doc, Feinstein Drama". The Hollywood Reporter. Retrieved November 28, 2018.
  5. ^ Erbland, Kate (February 3, 2019). "Sundance: 'Clemency' Filmmaker Chinonye Chukwu Is First Black Woman to Win Biggest Prize". Retrieved April 22, 2019.
  6. ^ D'Alessandro, Anthony (February 27, 2019). "Chinonye Chukwu's Sundance Grand Jury Prize Winner 'Clemency' Acquired By NEON". Deadline Hollywood. Retrieved February 27, 2019.
  7. ^ "2019 San Diego Intl Film Festival". September 21, 2019. Archived from the original on September 21, 2019. Retrieved September 24, 2019.
  8. ^ D'Alessandro, Anthony (April 25, 2019). "Sundance Grand Jury Prize Winner 'Clemency' Eyes Awards Season Release Date". Deadline Hollywood. Retrieved April 25, 2019.
  9. ^ "Clemency (2019)". Rotten Tomatoes. Fandango. Retrieved October 30, 2021.
  10. ^ "Clemency Reviews". Metacritic. Red Ventures. Retrieved January 4, 2021.
  11. ^ a b Fagerholm, Matt (December 27, 2019). "'Clemency'". Retrieved August 3, 2020.
  12. ^ Kohn, Eric (January 28, 2019). "'Clemency' Review: Alfre Woodard Is Brilliant in Must-See Prison Drama — Sundance". IndieWire. Retrieved February 3, 2019.
  13. ^ Debruge, Peter (February 2, 2019). "Sundance Winners: Clemency, One Child Nation Take Top Honors". Variety. Retrieved February 3, 2019.
  14. ^ "SIFF 2019 Award Winners". SIFF. Retrieved July 10, 2019.
  15. ^ "2019 Philadelphia Film Festival: Full lineup revealed". 6abc Philadelphia. October 18, 2019.
  16. ^ "Gotham Awards: 'Marriage Story,' 'The Farewell,' 'Uncut Gems' Lead Nominations". The Hollywood Reporter.
  17. ^ Schaffstall, Katherine (January 2, 2020). "Artios Awards: 'Hustlers,' 'Knives Out,' 'Rocketman' Among Casting Society Film Nominees". The Hollywood Reporter. Retrieved January 6, 2020.
  18. ^ Morales, Wilson (December 11, 2019). "20th Annual Black Reel Awards - Nominees Announced". Black Film. Retrieved January 9, 2020.
  19. ^ Sharf, Zack (November 21, 2019). "2020 Independent Spirit Awards Nominees: 'Marriage Story,' 'Uncut Gems,' and More".
  20. ^ Haring, Bruce (January 9, 2020). "NAACP Image Awards Nominees: 'Harriet,' 'When They See Us', Netflix Lead Way". Deadline Hollywood. Retrieved January 9, 2020.
  21. ^ "2021 EE British Academy Film Awards: The Nominations". Retrieved March 10, 2021.

External links[edit]