Greetings again from the darkness. You surely complain about your job. Most everyone does. But what if your career path had led you to oversee a dozen court-mandated executions, and the next one was already scheduled? In her first feature film, writer-director Chinonye Chukwu takes us inside the world of Warden Bernadine Williams, who manages a maximum-security prison, including inmates on death row. It’s the rare film in this sub-genre that doesn’t preach anti-death penalty politics, and instead focuses on the emotional toll it takes on those who must carry out the sentence.
Warden Williams (Alfre Woodard) is a seasoned prison professional who keeps her emotions in check, while sticking to policies and procedures. She is a restrained, often stoic person – both at work and at home. Early in the film, a lethal injection goes awry, and the warden finds this inexcusable. She wants answers and she prepares to make sure the next one scheduled … for inmate Anthony Woods … goes smoothly. Aldis Hodge plays Mr. Woods, a death row inmate for 15 years. His execution date is fast approaching despite his claims of innocence and the evidence showing he was not the one who killed the police officer. Woods’ attorney (Richard Schiff) has informed him that his last strand of hope is a decree of clemency by the governor.
Bernadine’s job involves dealing with family members, protestors, lawyers, media, guards, medical staff, procedures, final statements … and even the search for veins. The stress is obviously taking a toll, and even her home life is a wreck. Husband Jonathan (Wendell Pierce) is frustrated at her aloofness. He’s a high school teacher and reads a passage of “Invisible Man” to his class – words that hit home for him. Bernadine must also deal with the prison priest (Michael O’Neill) and the two share a powerful moment that relays the strain on both. Bernadine speaks matter-of-factly to Mr. Woods as she outlines the procedure of his execution. In another powerful moment, Mr. Woods attempts to exercise his last bit of control over his life and death. It’s brutal to watch.
Even though the death sentence is for convict Anthony Woods, most every other person involved expresses some desire to retire or walk away. This speaks clearly to the burden associated with taking the life of another human being. In a meeting with his former partner Evette (Danielle Brooks), Woods is given hope of a legacy outside of crime, while Evette expresses what she needs to him. This life is no fairy tale, and hard edges and difficult moments are around every corner.
Ms. Woodard has long been an underrated actress. Her only Oscar nomination came in 1983, and she has been outstanding in most roles since TV’s “St Elsewhere” in the 1980’s. She manages to convey humanity and realism in most every character she plays. Mr. Hodge starred in the title role of BRIAN BANKS earlier this year, and in both roles, he possesses a strength of character that allows the audience in. In Ms. Chukwu’s film, both are isolated in some way and struggling with how to deal.
Although the film spends very little time on the question of guilt or innocence, or whether the death penalty is a law of morality that fits within society, the approach of examining the psychological impact of those involved proves worthy of discussion. We do wish the script had not delivered such stand-off characters … ones so difficult to connect with. But perhaps that’s the inevitability of the environment – one that cuts much deeper than following the ritual of preparing for the next execution.