Clemency Parent Guide
A thoughtful, deeply felt look at the effects of the death penalty on those who carry it out and others who are touched by it.
Parent Movie Review
“You can’t know what it’s like to look at these people every day….I am alone. And nobody can fix it.” So says Bernadine Williams (Alfred Woodard), warden of a prison where those sentenced to death are killed by lethal injection. When the execution of Victor Jimenez (Alex Castillo) goes badly wrong, Bernadine and other corrections officers struggle to deal with the fallout.
Clemency is not a film that rants about the need to abolish capital punishment. It doesn’t need to. Instead of relying on impassioned speeches about barbarism and cruelty, Clemency simply brings audiences into the life of Warden Williams, her employees, condemned prisoners, and the other people whose lives are affected by the death penalty.
The film begins with one of the most horrifying scenes I have ever watched on the big screen. In what feels like real time, the camera follows Jimenez into the execution chamber and watches as he’s strapped onto the gurney. The paramedic, in a grotesque parody of medical care, tries to insert an IV in his arm. Then his foot. And finally, his groin. With the movie’s tension pulling ever tighter, the drugs are then administered, only for Jimenez to start choking and convulsing. The staff quickly close the curtain so the witnesses don’t see what happens, but the camera keeps us in the room until Jimenez is dead.
Warden Williams reacts with brisk efficiency, making the appropriate notifications and dealing with the public relations problems. But the botched execution ramps up the strain on her professional persona, and it begins to crack. She spends time in a bar after work, on one occasion becoming so intoxicated that her deputy warden has to talk her out of driving home. And her marriage is fraying. Her husband Jonathan (Wendell Pierce) sees the erosion of her inner self and perceptively observes, “I don’t think you want to live in fragments anymore. I think you want to be whole.”
Alfre Woodard’s portrayal of Bernadine Williams is already being rightly touted as a contender for the Best Actress Oscar and it would be well deserved. The story of this film emerges as Williams’ emotions, repressed as they are by her professional mask, play across Woodard’s face. Her face - taut and shadowed during Jimenez’s execution; defensive and exhausted arguing with her husband; bland and bureaucratic as she tells a prisoner about his upcoming execution and makes suggestions for his final meal; and fragmenting in silent horror at the end – is the canvas where the wider cost of capital punishment is painfully reckoned.
Clemency is a hard film to watch because it forces us to ask ourselves excruciatingly difficult questions about justice, law, dignity, and humanity. Is the death penalty the most effective way to deal with the most horrific crimes? Does the state have the right to kill? Can capital punishment be permissible when there is even a remote possibility of wrongful conviction? Does the death penalty needlessly end lives of convicts who have experienced genuine remorse and reformation? If the state is going to execute offenders, is it obligated to do so humanely? Does the desire of victims for closure give the state the right to demand its employees kill? And, who needs clemency: the convicted or their executioners?
The weighty issues that underpin this movie mean it’s clearly unsuitable for young viewers. Clemency has an R rating, but the profanity is relatively minor (aside from three sexual expletives), the sexual activity is between a married couple and doesn’t involve nudity, and the alcohol use is portrayed negatively. The real issue here is violence, which is mostly bloodless and is carried out by the well oiled bureaucratic machinery of the state. This will certainly scare adults more than any monster flick, but it gives mature teens and their parents plenty to talk about.Directed by Chinonye Chukwu. Starring Alfre Woodard, Aldis Hodge, LaMonica Garrett. Running time: 113 minutes. Theatrical release December 27, 2019. Updated December 27, 2019
Watch the trailer for Clemency
Rating & Content Info
Why is Clemency rated R? Clemency is rated R by the MPAA for some disturbing material, and language
Violence: There is a scene where a character smashes his own head against a wall; blood is visible on the wall, his head, and the floor. There are two executions in the film: in the first, the condemned man suffers bad reactions to the drugs used to kill him. There are disturbing views of the paramedic struggling to insert the IV needle.
Sexual Content: There is mention of an illegitimate child. In a dimly lit scene, a husband and wife are having some kind of sexual activity: moans are heard but no explicit detail is seen except for her negligee. A husband and wife kiss passionately: he kisses her chest, puts his hand down her blouse and undoes the buttons. Her bra and chest are visible but there is no breast nudity.
Profanity: There are nine instances of profanity and coarse language including three sexual expletives, three scatological terms, a term of deity and some mild curse words.
Alcohol / Drug Use: The main character drinks frequently to manage stress. She is talked out of driving while intoxicated. There is social drinking and alcohol consumed with meals.
Page last updated December 27, 2019
Clemency Parents' Guide
This film drew its inspiration from an actual execution. For more information about how Clemency was created, follow this link:
A botched execution causes enormous trauma for the characters in this movie. Sadly, they aren’t rare. Click on this link for a history of botched executions in the USA:
Death Penalty Information Center: Botched Executions
Where does the law stand on the constitutionality of capital punishment in the face of a problem of failed executions?
The Atlantic: The Cruel and Unusual Execution of Clayton Lockett
Clemency depicts the psychological toll that executions take on prison staff. For more information about how capital punishment affects correctional officers, check out these articles.
The Atlantic: The Enforcers of the Death Penalty
The Washington Post: The hidden victims of the death penalty: Correctional staff
NCADP:Org: Harm to Prison Workers
How to you feel about the death penalty? Do you think it reduces crime and provides an appropriate punishment for criminals? Or do you think it brutalizes those who perform it and degrades the administration of justice? Are you concerned about the possibility of wrongful convictions, especially in capital cases?
Have you ever discussed the death penalty with someone whose opinion differs from yours? What did you learn from them?
Loved this movie? Try these books…
Bryan Stevenson’s memoir, Just Mercy, details his experience in scores of wrongful conviction and death penalty cases. Wrongful convictions are also covered in Brandon L Garrett’s Convicting the Innocent: Where Criminal Prosecutions Go Wrong. Mark Godsey also tackles this issue in Blind Injustice: A Former Prosecutor Exposes the Psychology and Politics of Wrongful Convictions.
If you have a strong stomach and an interest in this issue, you will want to read Austin Sarat’s Gruesome Spectacles: Botched Executions and America’s Death Penalty, a book which details the failures in the correctional system’s ability to provide humane executions.
For a reasoned and thorough debate of the pros and cons of capital punishment, turn to Debating the Death Penalty: Should America Have Capital Punishment?. Editors Hugo Adam Bedau and Paul G Cassell have assembled a panel of lawyers, jurists, and philosophers to debate the issues from a position of knowledge and experience.
Related home video titles:
Opening contemporaneously with Clemency is Just Mercy, based on the true life story of Bryan Stevenson, a lawyer who dedicated his career to freeing the wrongfully convicted and bringing an end to the death penalty.
A convict joins a rehabilitation program breaking wild horses that changes his life in The Mustang.