Thursday, December 19, 2019

Alfre Woodard in CLEMENCY

Oh, my Lord, what a performance. If you want to see a woman at the top of her game in the field of acting, you must see Alfre Woodard in CLEMENCY. This prison drama is another independent feature that comes to us from a female filmmaker. CLEMENCY was written and directed by Chinonye Chukwu. The movie takes an unsentimental look at institutionalized murder. We look at the death penalty in our American prison system. Alfre Woodard stars as Warden Bernadine Williams, a very by-the-book prison boss. The story opens with her on her way to her oversee an execution via lethal injection. She will ask the condemned young man, "Do you have a final statement?"
She's intelligent, stoic, respected and she's been in her position for seven years. We can see she's been in a male-dominated environment. The 1000 inmates are men. In the execution room, she's the only woman. The Death Row convict, the guards, the paramedics and the chaplain are all men. Bernadine's job cannot be an easy one. Something goes wrong with the execution of Victor Jimenez as she watches. Reporters and the convict's mother watch from another room until Bernadine quickly pulls a curtain over the glass window.

We see her steeliness in work situations. After work, she and other employees frequent a local bar. Bernadine drinks just enough to give her a slight buzz before she goes home. The drinks give her relief from the heavy psychological demands of her daily employment. At home, there's now some emotional distance in her marriage. Her husband, a high school teacher, loves her very much. He sees that she's drifting further and further away from him. She's not fully present in their marriage. One night he snaps that he does not want "an empty shell of a wife."

Her office at work is her prison cell, but she doesn't realize it. With every execution she oversees, a bit of her life, a bit of her soul, leaks out leaving her emptier emotionally and spiritually. This she will have to confront as she prepares for another execution. He was convicted of killing a policeman. The crime made TV news headlines. Outside the prison, people protest the death penalty and his death sentence. Bernadine's emotional fractures will connect her to the man condemned to death.
Alfre Woodard's performance is so nuanced, so riveting. To be fair, hers is not the only powerful performance in CLEMENCY. Right up there with her is Aldis Hodge (STRAIGHT OUTTA COMPTON, HIDDEN FIGURES) as repentant Anthony Woods, the next inmate scheduled for execution. The gifted Wendell Pierce plays Bernadine's husband. Pierce is currently the Toast of London where he got terrific reviews for his work as Willy Loman in a British theatre revival of Arthur Miller's DEATH OF A SALESMAN. One of the new hits on CBS TV is the sitcom called BOB ❤ ABISHOLA. A hospital nurse, one of the regulars on the show, is played by Vernee Watson. She's a veteran an many network TV commercials and parts in episodes of network TV shows. In CLEMENCY, she's Mrs. Collins, a woman who pleads for the opportunity from Warden Williams to bring some humanity into the convict's final days. This small supporting role reminds us that Vernee Watson can make a great impression with dramatic material too. I also want to give some praise to actor Alex Castillo. He's in the first 10 minutes of CLEMENCY as the first inmate we see executed. It's not a big role. However, he gives a gripping, unforgettable performance. Here's a trailer for the film.

Alfre Woodard is outstanding in CLEMENCY. She is another of those remarkable actresses of color who got an Oscar nomination and then had to turn to TV soon after the Oscars telecast because Hollywood no other juicy script offers for her.  Also in this category are Rita Moreno (Oscar winner, WEST SIDE STORY), Cicely Tyson (Oscar nominee, SOUNDER), Diahann Carroll (Oscar nominee, CLAUDINE), Angela Bassett (Oscar nominee, WHAT'S LOVE GOT TO DO WITH IT?), Taraji P. Henson (Oscar nominee, THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON) and even Whoopi Goldberg (Oscar nominee, THE COLOR PURPLE and Oscar winner, GHOST).

I've been an Alfre Woodard fan ever since I saw her in the Robert Altman social commentary ensemble comedy, HEALTH (1980). Set at a luxury hotel in Florida, there's a health food convention and a political organization election happening at the same time. I was in a movie audience that loved the Black actress who played the overwhelmed public relations director of the hotel. She was comedy gold. I could hear folks in the audience whisper "Who's that girl?" It was newcomer Alfre Woodard in a cast that included Glenda Jackson, Lauren Bacall, Carol Burnett and James Garner.

Woodard played the helper/maid in 1983's CROSS CREEK. Set in Florida in the late 1920s, it's the story of author Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, the woman who wrote THE YEARLING. Mary Steenburgen played Rawlings. Alfre Woodard got a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination for her performance. Did she get other good Hollywood script offers after her Oscar nomination like Julia Roberts, Amy Adams and Cate Blanchett did? Nope. Alfre turned to TV for steady employment. We saw her on HILL STREET BLUES, AMERICAN PLAYHOUSE productions on PBS, ST. ELSEWHERE and DESPERATE HOUSEWIVES. She racked up several Emmy nominations for her TV work. I'd love to see Alfre Woodard in the Oscar race again.

For her prison drama, CLEMENCY, director and screenwriter Chinonye Chukwu became the first Black woman to win the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival.

CLEMENCY is scheduled to be released on December 27th.

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