One of the most overlooked actresses of the decade, Alfre Woodard seemingly missed out on many showcase roles. That’s not Woodard’s fault but remains an industry problem. After all, few women of color get starring roles, and many of these went to Viola Davis this decade. However, Woodard’s talent has always been undeniable, and for years she got pushed to sidelines. However, with Clemency the actress delivers career-best work that should be discussed in every Best of the Decade conversation. Woodard’s incredible turn, along with the rise of Aldis Hodge, make Clemency a must-watch film, despite its imperfections.
Clemency follows Bernadine Williams (Woodard) as her thirteenth execution as a prison warden approaches. Opening with the botched execution of her twelfth execution, tensions reach a fever-pitch. To further complicate matters, there are many questions regarding the guilt of inmate Anthony Woods (Hodge). Meanwhile, Williams struggles to keep her marriage, career, and soul in-tact.
Woodard owns this film from the opening frames with a gravitational turn as the warden. All eyes stay on her as she processes the emotion of death in the most impersonal method possible. Woodard keys you into her emotional state through both subtle and openly big acting moments. Her performance within her eyes tells the story, utilizing her strongest asset to convey a stunning amount of empathy.
With all the attention focused on Woodard, she takes full advantage of her opportunity. Her performance sells the humanity of a position that is often inhumane. The meta-commentary of a woman proving her worth in a male-dominated field cannot be ignored. Woodard has an Oscar nomination, but that nomination came all the way back in 1983. For an actress of this caliber to go unrewarded for so long remains a massive oversight, not just by AMPAS, but by an industry that never gave her the opportunities she clearly deserves.
Meanwhile, Hodge crafts his own corner for a heartbreaking turn. His emotional journey through the film gives him some beautiful moments but hangs the tragedies of his life out for all to see. Hodge burst on the scene in 2016 with Underground in 2016. Anyone who watched that series knows of his emotional depth, but Hodge uses Clemency to put on an absolute clinic. If you cannot feel empathy or sorry for him here, I’m not sure what could stir your emotions. He gives his heart to the role, and as a result, disappears into the performance.
Unfortunately for both Woodard and Hodge, much of the material does not rise to their level. Director Chinonye Chukwu gives his actors room to let their performances speak, but the screenplay rarely examines new territory. For topics as controversial as the death penalty, we need more than basic arguments. The other sides of the film, including a retiring lawyer (Richard Schiff) and the warden’s husband (Wendall Pierce), feel like they’ve been pulled from the 1990s. Nothing special comes in these sequences, and they honestly distract from the far more internal performances on display. It’s important to expand the scope for some films, but for Clemency, we do not get the payoff you would expect.
Clemency thrives because of its two lead performers, and the rest of the film struggles to catch up to their talent. This leaves the audience with an uneven feature. Despite this, Woodard needs to be championed. She single-handedly sells the power of this film on her performance. For Hodge, Clemency should be seen as the true beginning of a future movie-star career. Each leaves the audience feeling the emotional vulnerability of their characters. For Woodard, the last ten minutes of the film allow her to turn in one of the best ten performances by any actress this decade. That will be Clemency‘s legacy, and hopefully, the Oscars pay attention to her stunning work.
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