Movie review by
Jeffrey M. Anderson, Common Sense Media
Clemency Movie Poster Image
Powerful, intense, mature drama about the death penalty.
  • R
  • 2019
  • 113 minutes

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A lot or a little?

The parents' guide to what's in this movie.

Positive Messages

This movie gives viewers plenty to think and talk about concerning the death penalty. Also, what does it mean when someone is "just doing their job"?

Positive Role Models & Representations

Although she's a strong character and a Black woman in a position of power, it's difficult to describe Bernadine as a clearly positive role model, given that she's not only in charge of executing prisoners but also that she's clearly suffering and has no outlet. And she never seeks help for her pain.


Horrifying sequence of a death row prisoner's execution (by lethal injection) going wrong, leading to an agonizing death. Blood spills out of chest wound. Prisoner bashes own head against wall three times, blood smear on wall. Angry protestors shouting. Arguing.


A married couple attempts sex but gives up. Moaning noises heard, kissing shown. In a later scene, a man fondles his wife's breasts (over clothing), kisses her, makes brief "sexy talk."


Infrequent uses of "f--k," "s--t," "goddamn," and "damn."

Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

Main character drinks frequently in bars. She gets staggering drunk in one scene and tries to drive, but a co-worker takes her home instead.

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that Clemency is a drama about a warden (Alfre Woodard) who oversees a death row prison. It's an austere, unflinching, intense, and powerful film, with unforgettable work by Woodard. It's also very difficult to watch. In one horrifying sequence, a prisoner's execution goes wrong, and he dies in agony, with blood pooling up out of a chest wound. Another prisoner tries to kill himself by repeatedly banging his head against the wall; a blood smear is shown. Angry protestors shout frequently, and characters argue. A married couple initiates sex in two scenes but end up stopping. There's kissing, fondling of a woman's breasts over her clothing, suggestive talk, and off-screen moaning sounds. Language is infrequent but includes uses of "f--k," "s--t," and more. The main character drinks frequently in bars. She gets staggering drunk in one scene and attempts to drive home but is stopped.

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What's the story?

In CLEMENCY, prison warden Bernadine Williams (Alfre Woodard) prepares to execute yet another death row inmate, but something goes horribly wrong, and the prisoner dies in agony. The incident casts a pall over everything as Bernadine tries to hang onto her crumbling marriage to Jonathan (Wendell Pierce) and deals with the constant presence of protestors outside her office. She also spends too much time at the bar drinking and doesn't sleep much anymore. Next in line to be executed is prisoner Anthony Woods (Aldis Hodge), whose kind but wounded lawyer, Marty Lumetta (Richard Schiff), is determined to help any way he can. As the time approaches, it becomes clear that there's more than a man's life at stake.

Is it any good?

Austere and resonant, this drama about the horrors of the death penalty roots itself in a vivid, pain-wracked, soul-tired main character and still manages to get its message across without preaching. Woodard's devastating performance in Clemency is quiet and controlled as Bernadine tries to maintain a sense of duty and responsibility, aside from her personal feelings. But her gaze as she sits blearily on the couch at night, or when she drinks too much at a bar and fails miserably at having a normal conversation, reveal untold depths of anguished humanity. There are moments when she's so far gone that she doesn't even respond to "warden" and only wakes up when her name, "Bernadine," is called.

The rest of the movie's moving parts work well, too. Schiff's lawyer character is equally damaged, on the verge of retiring -- not because he wants to but because he simply can't handle the despair of his job anymore. His moments with Hodge's prisoner are amazingly touching, especially as we realize that this movie, simply put, isn't going to be one of those exciting thrillers with a last-minute rescue call from the governor. Only the character of Bernadine's husband seems thinly sketched, a little too quick to jump into dramatic arguments. Written and directed by Chinonye Chukwu, the quiet Clemency climaxes with an unforgettable moment of supreme quietness as the camera lingers on Bernadine's face. And, for a long moment, we witness terrible things happening to the remains of her soul.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about Clemency's violence. How did it make you feel? Is it shocking or thrilling? How did the filmmakers achieve this?

  • What does the movie have to say about the death penalty? What are the arguments for and against it?

  • Bernadine Williams is a strong, three-dimensional Black female character, but is she a role model?

  • How does the movie portray drinking? Is it glamorized? Are there consequences? Why does that matter?

Movie details

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