It’s probably a coincidence that two films about the death penalty opened at virtually the same time at the end of 2019, but it’s undeniably a strange one. Or is it? It seems likely both were being groomed for Oscar glory, and distributors know a December release is more likely to be remembered by Academy voters than an August one.
If that was the plan, it didn’t work. Though I haven’t seen Just Mercy yet, Clemency (opening at Rialto Cinemas Elmwood on Friday, Jan. 17) seemed likely to garner at least one nomination (and deserved one for the Oscar category that doesn’t exist but really should, Best Performance by an Ensemble Cast). Alas, star Alfre Woodard’s Academy Award pedigree — she was nominated in 1983 for a film called Cross Creek, which I have to sheepishly admit I’d never heard of before writing this review — wasn’t enough to help her garner a Best Actress nod.
Woodard plays Bernadine Williams, a death row warden who’s supervised a dozen executions over the years and is now suffering the psychological consequences. Stony-faced and inflexible by day, Bernadine is unable to sleep at night, and has become estranged from high school English teacher husband Jonathan (Wendell Pierce).
A thirteenth execution looms. Anthony Woods (Aldis Hodge) has exhausted his appeals and is awaiting the result of a final plea for clemency; close-to-retirement lawyer Marty Lumetta (the excellent Richard Schiff, superb in a small role in last year’s Safe Spaces) is trying to keep his client’s — and his own — spirits up during the wait.
Films set on death row have been a Hollywood staple for over a century, and it’s fair to say that the vast majority of them were not made in praise of the state’s willingness and ability to kill. Clemency is no exception: it begins with one grueling execution sequence and ends with another, in-between chronicling the emotional damage inflicted on everyone involved.
These films work because — no matter the crimes committed or the guilt or innocence of the prisoner — the taking of a person’s life by the state is an inherently shocking event, especially when clothed in the garments of legality and morality. Written and directed by Chinonye Chukwu, Clemency may not quite attain the heights of Robert Wise’s gut-wrenching I Want to Live! (1958), but it’s certainly worth seeing.
‘Recorder: The Marion Stokes Project’
Marion Stokes was an African American communist who recorded more than 30 years’ worth of television news across multiple channels on 70,000 videotapes. I don’t think I broached the 1,000 VHS mark during my own 1980s and ‘90s taping heyday, and am awestruck by her accomplishment and dedication.
Her incredible story is told in Recorder: The Marion Stokes Project, opening at San Francisco’s Roxie Theater on Friday, Jan. 17. A librarian who lost her job because of her political beliefs, Stokes was a deep thinker and news junkie who was an early adopter of video tech, acquiring her first Betamax machine in 1975.
The compulsive taping didn’t start until the Iran hostage crisis in 1979, but once it began it continued until Stokes’ death in 2012. Recorder features interviews with ex-husband Melvin Metelits, son Michael, and her former household staff (including an English chauffeur with a very plummy accent), who still obviously hold her in great regard. And if you’re wondering — her tapes are now in the possession of San Francisco’s Internet Archive, which, happily, is working to catalog and digitize them.