Clemency, written and directed by Chinonye Chukwu, contains one of the most lyrical, skillful, and haunting performances of the decade: the legendary Alfre Woodard playing Bernadine, a traumatized yet strict prison warden for a maximum security prison in a capital punishment state. Bernadine not only oversees the care of prisoners, many of whom are serving life sentences, but also death row executions by lethal injection. Clemency does not follow the tropes of the typical prison drama, and while the narrative hinges in part on the idea of mercy—that one of the death row inmates, a man named Anthony Woods (Aldis Hodge), very plausibly did not commit the crime he is to be executed for and may be saved from execution at any moment—it is, in fact, a horror story that is as material as it is psychological, not just for the incarcerated, but also for the enforcers. For Anthony and Bernadine both, the stakes are as real as they get.
Over a phone call, Woodard broke down the role, surprising me by saying that being able to play Bernadine, a woman as committed to her work as she is disturbed by it, has little to do with empathy.
Woodard has been politically active since she was a teenager, but when it came to telling the story of the (often black) women in the social work and public administration professions who become prison wardens—carrying out the state’s bidding, right or wrong, in the most orderly manner possible—the task was to attend not to her own political beliefs and obligations, but the truth of the story itself. “When you are portraying a character, tapping into your own personal empathy is really getting off the track,” she explained. “Hopefully, as a human being, [empathy] is what you operate on day-to-day. What your task is [as an actor] is to honor [the] person you’re playing by getting yourself out of the way from your feelings, opinions, emotions, personal experience, the way you live—because it’s not about you.”
Woodard, however, did have the chance to connect with some of the real people who are a part of the prison system. She prepared for the role by visiting prisons in Ohio—a capital punishment state—with Chukwu, listening to wardens and prisoners reveal some of their most intimate thoughts, regrets, and experiences. “By the time I got to camera, all I had to do was follow the directions of a script: Bernadine’s sitting at the desk, the call comes through, and all the rest of that,” Woodard told me. “Everything we do as actors, we say, and it’s true, that our bodies and our whole psyche or spirituality is our instrument. And you learn to play it the way you play a Strat or a cello. All that is in there with training, but you know what to push, you know what to touch to get those notes, and I was ready to play it.”
This refined approach makes sense for Woodard, who not only trained in drama as an undergraduate at Boston University but has spent years taking on complex roles that leap far away from her own reality. Acting, then, is not simply an act of relating or understanding but embodiment or possession. You evacuate the self and usher someone else in. If you follow the instrument metaphor more closely, preparation is much like familiarizing yourself with a piece—its tones, influences, and physical requirements—and the script is the sheet music; the mastery is in hitting the notes just right in the moment. Woodard gives Bernadine an unmistakable physical presence that is at times elegant and melodious, and at other times rigid and staccato. The sharp, short notes impede on the smooth, sustained ones more and more until totally taking over.
Ultimately, to Woodard, being able to embody or inhabit a character has do with a different kind of insight. “I think it's intelligence. [And] humanity, to find out the way that person thinks, because their point of view is the only reality for them.” And for Bernadine, that reality is a crushing one. The first execution we witness her oversee in the film is her 11th; the prisoner, Carlos Jimenez, is dehydrated and the paramedic administering the injection cannot find a vein. Bernadine approves the paramedic to inject via the groin, but the procedure goes wrong. Jimenez dies in pain. It’s a terrifying start to the film, but Woodard doesn’t shy away from her character’s harsh sense of duty. “If you’re trying to play a villain and kind of wink [to let] us know you’re playing the villain because you don’t want to be disliked as an actor, then you’re not doing your work.”
“It’s always interesting to me to be able to stand in the place of a person who thinks radically differently than I do because not only is that my job, but that’s the growth for me as a human being,” Woodard reflects. “And I totally respect the women that I met, not just [because] they have the right to have their opinion. No, I get them.” These are women who believe that even if a system may be viewed as morally wrong by the public, if the state has ordered them, then the most humane and dignified people ought to be the ones to carry those orders out. Many, including me, would disagree. When systems are stripped down to their administrative or bureaucratic details, we in fact distance ourselves from humanity, no matter how much those administering try to treat their charges with interpersonal respect. Though those of us who think that way are still in the minority. While support for the death penalty in the U.S. is at a historic low, there has been a recent uptick: 54 percent of Americans support it while 39 percent oppose.
Clemency asks all of us—especially the majority in support of capital punishment—to contend with the system that makes these state executions as orderly as possible. And though Woodard’s performance does emphasize the humanity in Bernadine, it also highlights the internal self-destruction that is the result of the system she believes she must uphold. Bernadine is not a cartoon villain and even tries to connect with Woods’ public defender Marty Lumetta (Richard Schiff), whose fury toward the warden spirals temporarily into hopelessness. But Bernadine’s own righteous dedication to a ruthless deed forces viewers to grapple with their own complicity in capital punishment—no matter how remote, marginal, or seemingly justified. “That’s a part of the conversation that hasn’t been on the table is the fact that, OK, here, look at these people whose livelihoods depend on the taking of human life. This is what it does. This is how high a PTSD rate they have, as if they’d been on multiple deployments [in the military].”
In the film, Bernadine’s husband (Wendell Pierce) is a public-school teacher who suffers in his inability to provide the resources for his students that the system withholds from them. It’s not unrelated to Bernadine’s problems, in that this lack of support often delivers kids into the clutches of the prison-industrial complex. Public schools are yet another system that can find dedicated and qualified public servants troubled by their own participation in negligence and cruelty, ordered from on high. The binary of fighting from within or without becomes insufficient when it’s difficult to make sense of what you’re truly a part of: Are you helping those who have no choice but to be in the system or are you aiding in their destruction? It’s a compelling conundrum to see navigated by Woodard, who plays her instrument with a finesse rarely seen.
When I ask her what’s next on her plate after such a heavy role, she draws the line in just one area: “I hope to keep demonstrating that the higher in years a woman gets, the more experienced she is. And so, whatever she’s doing is going to be interesting. Some of us get the opportunity to do that, but we have to push more for grown women [to get to be] who they really are [in society] on screen. I’m not going to babysit. I’m not going to rock anybody’s baby. I’m not going to make anybody any soup.”