‘Clemency’ First Look: Sundance Winner Stars Alfre Woodard and Aldis Hodge in Heartbreaking Contender
by Ladun Ogidan
After picking up the Grand Jury Prize at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, Chinonye Chukwu’s death row drama Clemency is well on its way to a busy fall season. That means not just a late December release, but all the fuss that goes along with an awards campaign for an excellent film that also boasts a pair of standout performances worthy of their own individual attention.
Chukwu both wrote and directed the heartbreaking drama, which stars Alfre Woodard as a prison warden struggling with the emotional demands of her job, many of which come to a head as she prepares to execute a prisoner (Aldis Hodge) mounting a desperate last-minute fight for exoneration. The filmmaker boldly tracks these two characters, brought to life by a pair of very talented leads, as they brace for an inevitable tragedy, making sure neither comes off as hero or villain. Each scene is a challenge Chukwu’s characters fight through, and she ensures the viewer feels the gruelling weight of the situation through pacing and editing. It all leads up to a final ten minutes guaranteed to break your heart (deservedly so, given the craft on offer within the entire film).
Chukwu’s historic win at Sundance (as the first black woman to win the festival’s biggest prize) set the stage for a buzzy 2019, one that should result in some serious awards pursuits. Following its world premiere in January at Sundance, the film served as the opening night selection of New York City’s New Directors/New Films festival. Most recently, Clemency celebrated its international premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival in the starry Galas section.
In IndieWire’s review, Eric Kohn wrote of the film, “Alfre Woodard embodies the extraordinary challenges of a woman tasked with sending men to their death while bottling up her emotions so tight she looks as if she might blow. 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.”
The film rounds out boutique distributor Neon’s packed fall schedule, which includes other potential awards contenders like Bong Joon Ho’s Parasite and Celine Sciamma’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire. Neon will release the film in theatres on December 27.
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