CLEMENCY (2019)

December 28, 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. You surely complain about your job. Most everyone does. But what if your career path had led you to oversee a dozen court-mandated executions, and the next one was already scheduled? In her first feature film, writer-director Chinonye Chukwu takes us inside the world of Warden Bernadine Williams, who manages a maximum-security prison, including inmates on death row. It’s the rare film in this sub-genre that doesn’t preach anti-death penalty politics, and instead focuses on the emotional toll it takes on those who must carry out the sentence.

Warden Williams (Alfre Woodard) is a seasoned prison professional who keeps her emotions in check, while sticking to policies and procedures. She is a restrained, often stoic person – both at work and at home. Early in the film, a lethal injection goes awry, and the warden finds this inexcusable. She wants answers and she prepares to make sure the next one scheduled … for inmate Anthony Woods … goes smoothly. Aldis Hodge plays Mr. Woods, a death row inmate for 15 years. His execution date is fast approaching despite his claims of innocence and the evidence showing he was not the one who killed the police officer. Woods’ attorney (Richard Schiff) has informed him that his last strand of hope is a decree of clemency by the governor.

Bernadine’s job involves dealing with family members, protestors, lawyers, media, guards, medical staff, procedures, final statements … and even the search for veins. The stress is obviously taking a toll, and even her home life is a wreck. Husband Jonathan (Wendell Pierce) is frustrated at her aloofness. He’s a high school teacher and reads a passage of “Invisible Man” to his class – words that hit home for him. Bernadine must also deal with the prison priest (Michael O’Neill) and the two share a powerful moment that relays the strain on both. Bernadine speaks matter-of-factly to Mr. Woods as she outlines the procedure of his execution. In another powerful moment, Mr. Woods attempts to exercise his last bit of control over his life and death. It’s brutal to watch.

Even though the death sentence is for convict Anthony Woods, most every other person involved expresses some desire to retire or walk away. This speaks clearly to the burden associated with taking the life of another human being. In a meeting with his former partner Evette (Danielle Brooks), Woods is given hope of a legacy outside of crime, while Evette expresses what she needs to him. This life is no fairy tale, and hard edges and difficult moments are around every corner.

Ms. Woodard has long been an underrated actress. Her only Oscar nomination came in 1983, and she has been outstanding in most roles since TV’s “St Elsewhere” in the 1980’s. She manages to convey humanity and realism in most every character she plays. Mr. Hodge starred in the title role of BRIAN BANKS earlier this year, and in both roles, he possesses a strength of character that allows the audience in. In Ms. Chukwu’s film, both are isolated in some way and struggling with how to deal.

Although the film spends very little time on the question of guilt or innocence, or whether the death penalty is a law of morality that fits within society, the approach of examining the psychological impact of those involved proves worthy of discussion. We do wish the script had not delivered such stand-off characters … ones so difficult to connect with. But perhaps that’s the inevitability of the environment – one that cuts much deeper than following the ritual of preparing for the next execution.

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SELMA (2014)

January 7, 2015

 

selma Greetings again from the darkness. Historical dramatizations can be a tricky business, as delivering both truth and entertainment value is quite challenging. There is always an expert quick to point out any artistic license taken at the expense of historical accuracy. Of course, most movie lovers have come to accept that even the best-intentioned Hollywood looks at history will be at least as focused on selling tickets as educating the public. Because of this, the swirling controversies for this film are neither surprising nor overly distracting from its message.

March 7, 1965 is known as Bloody Sunday and marks one of the most despicable moments in U.S. history. It was also a turning point in the Civil Rights Movement and can be viewed as shrewd strategy from Martin Luther King, Jr. and his organization, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. The movie makes it clear that MLK had a full understanding that Selma, Alabama and it’s racist, redneck Sheriff Jim Clark provided the perfect opportunity for a violent reaction to King’s demonstrations and protests. It also makes it very clear that there was boundless ignorance, hatred and racism on the part of many southern whites.  If the subject matter is somehow not enough to grab your attention, the startling event that occurs 5 minutes in will surely leave you shaken.

The film does an outstanding job of focusing on two pieces of this most complex puzzle: 1. the boots on the ground – the grass roots movement of the people, and 2. the ongoing political debates occurring between MLK and LBJ, between LBJ and his staff, and between MLK and his lieutenants.

The Civil Rights Act had already been passed, so the efforts were in hopes of overcoming the obstacles faced by southern blacks who wished to vote. One of the film’s best scenes has activist Annie Lee Cooper (Oprah Winfrey) trying yet again to have her voter registration processed, but being rebuffed by a county clerk through an impossible Q&A session. These intimate moments are where the film excels: Coretta questioning MLK on his love for her, MLK speaking with grandfather of Jimmie Lee Jackson outside the morgue, and MLK turning down the proposal of US Attorney John Doar (Alessandro Nivola).

In an odd twist of casting, four of the leading characters are played by Brits: David Oyelowo as MLK, Tom Wilkinson as President Lyndon Johnson, Tim Roth as George Wallace and Carmen Ejogo as Coretta Scott King. All four are excellent, but it’s Mr. Roth as the racist-beyond-belief Alabama Governor Wallace that is the most slitheringly evil, while Mr. Oyelowo gives what can only be described as a towering performance of the man many of us know only from history books and news reels (and a January holiday).

The supporting cast is vast and talented, and because the story spends so much time on the individuals, many of these spend little time on screen. In addition to Andrew Young (Andre Holland), Reverend Hosea Williams (Wendell Pierce), J Edgar Hoover (Dylan Baker), and Lee C White (Giovanni Ribisi), we also see activist Diana Nash (Tessa Thompson), CT Vivian (Corey Reynolds), John Lewis (Stephen James), and Judge Johnson (Martin Sheen). The most bizarre moment has Malcolm X (Nigel Thatch) in a quasi-Mr Rogers depiction as he discussed his new found approach with Coretta.

The original King speeches are owned by another studio so those delivered here by Oyelowo have been re-written and revised, yet the words and Oyelowo’s powerful oratory deliver the message loud and clear. While it can be argued that the film delivers only one point of view (the FBI was no friend to the movement), it can just as easily be argued that previous films have done the same thing – only from the “other” perspective (Mississippi Burning, Ghosts of Mississippi).

In what can be viewed as the first serious movie on Martin Luther King, director Ava DuVernay announces her presence with authority. She will have no need to return to her career as a movie publicist, and we will be watching to see what type of projects appeal to her after this. In a brilliant move, the story focuses on a period of just a few months in 1965, rather than tackling the MLK legacy. She presents him as a man with strengths, flaws, doubts, and determination. It’s clear why so many followed him, and it’s all the more painful to know that so many resisted.

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