Stephen Rohde: ‘Clemency’ Explores ‘The Brutalizing Effect’ of the Death Penalty

For Variety’s Writers on Writers, Stephen Rohde pens a tribute to “Clemency” (written by Chinonye Chukwu).

The film begins and ends with a close-up of Warden Bernadine Williams, played with wrenching intensity by Alfre Woodard. There is an indelible weariness in her eyes — eyes that have witnessed far too many executions. “Clemency” is her film, but she is hardly the only one suffering in this harrowing story about the soul-killing toll the death penalty is taking on our country. Of course, the greatest toll is exacted from death row inmates themselves. They are the objects of a deeply flawed system of state killing that is so infected by racial and economic disparities and so riddled with fatal errors that we know of at least 166 innocent people wrongfully condemned to death row.

Yet rarely has a film explored the brutalizing effect the death penalty has on everyone else in the system — the wardens, prison guards, chaplains, defense lawyers and their families, as well as the families of the victims and the condemned. The searing power of “Clemency,” written and directed with a confident compassion by Chinonye Chukwu, is to portray the price paid by everyone involved in the death penalty, including, by extension, our society itself — you and me.

In 1994, after having consistently voted to uphold capital punishment for almost 25 years, Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun declared, “I shall no longer tinker with the machinery of death” because “the death penalty experiment has failed.” With stunning supporting performances by Richard Schiff, Aldis Hodge, Wendell Pierce and Michael O’Neill, “Clemency” looks searchingly at all the broken cogs and wheels in that deadly machinery.

Popular on Variety

Late in the film, Warden Williams, wracked by fits of sleeplessness and nightmares, her marriage on the rocks, cries out, “I am alone and nobody can
fix it.” We don’t know what she will do. But after watching “Clemency,” we are reminded that those who care about justice and the dignity of every human life are not alone. We can fix it. We can abolish the death penalty once and for all.

Stephen Rohde represented a death row inmate and was part of the Clemency Team for Stanley Tookie Williams, who was executed in 2005. A member of the Board of Death Penalty Focus for 25 years, he is the author of “Choosing Life: Reflections on the Movement to End Capital Punishment,” and the books “American Words of Freedom: The Words That Define Our Nation” and “Freedom of Assembly.” He has written for the Los Angeles Times, Huffington Post and American Prospect, and is a regular contributor to the Los Angeles Review of Books.