Cert – 15, Run-time – 1 hour 52 minutes, Director – Chinonye Chukwu
A prison warden (Alfre Woodard) finds herself facing many moral issues when a death row inmate (Aldis Hodge) loudly insists his innocence, backed by his lawyer (Richard Schiff), family and protesters. Meanwhile her home life is becoming increasingly tense.
Being a prison warden dealing with death row inmates is undeniably one of the most morally challenging jobs a person could possibly have. The potential personal and psychological impact that it could have is almost unthinkable. Yet, for Bernadine Williams (Alfre Woodard) this is her everyday life, made increasingly stressful when media attempt to get into the prison that she’s in charge of after protesters begin to act outside the gates. Chanting against the soon-to-be-execution of inmate Anthony Woods (Aldis Hodge). Woods continues to proclaim his own innocence, although refusing to speak to Bernadine and the prison chaplain. Claiming that he was not behind a shooting several years earlier – something which his lawyer, Marty (Richard Schiff) has been fighting for this whole time.
This is very much a story of people at the end of their tether, in multiple ways. Marty is about to go into retirement, something that Anthony claims is him giving up, Bernadine finds herself in greater conflict between her job and her own personal opinions, especially in relation to the innocence of the next person to be executed in her prison, Anthony, who finds himself in increasing panic and worry that his life will be prematurely ended for a crime that he claims, alongside many other people, he didn’t commit. The film is very much a slow burn, yet because of this mixture of drama, primarily told from the viewpoint of Woodard’s conflicted warden – a perspective not often shown in the likes of death row dramas – there’s always something to grab on to. To be engaged and brought into the film by. While you may not always form a connection with the characters you certainly feel for them as you observe them and their actions, seeing inside their minds – as if you’re on the window side of a two-way mirror; making the drama more authentic and real.
Bernadine’s worklife troubles find themselves leaking into her homelife, making her relationship with her husband (Wendell Pierce) increasingly tense. During a heated discussion he claim that he’s been “living with an empty shell of a wife”. Telling Bernadine that her job is beginning to consume her and remove her from the rest of the world, only adding to her worries, all expressed behind a shielded, dead-pan face; all while still conveying the struggling identity and mindset that makes up the character. “No matter what I do or don’t do he’s dead” she exhales, believing herself to be powerless, despite having the most power in the prison, all adding to the in-depth character study that this film explores. The debate of morals, work and the death penalty as a whole, amongst various other things. By putting the prison warden in centre of the film’s events the arguments are further pushed and explored. At one point Bernadine tells Marty “You want to put it as good guys and bad guys, and I’m one of the bad guys” knowing, much like the audience, that things aren’t that simple.
Throughout the run-time Chinonye Chukwu’s direction shines in the strong performances of the cast. The way the camera is kept stationary on a number of occasions to heighten the emotion and impact of a number of scenes. As Bernadine tells Anthony what will happen to him on the day of his execution Hodge’s performance is kept in frame almost the entire time. As he seems frozen yet restless, endless thoughts of panic, fear, pain and worry racing through his mind all at once, all while his character intensely fights to hold back tears packs a great punch of emotion – something that Woodard almost expertly replicates within her own character at another point in the film. There are plenty of scenes just like this over the course of the film each with their own individual tone and flavour, never feeling dried-up or tired, and much of it comes down to Chukwu’s direction, the way that she deals with the heavy subject matter of the piece, never shying away from the facts, managing to convey an honest and in-depth character study all show a promising rising talent (this being Chukwu’s second feature) with a strong, interesting voice.
From the opening scene writer-director Chinonye Chukwu takes hold of an interesting angle to show the confliction of her central character as everything around her causes increasing debate in this finely held death row drama, all brought to life by three brilliantly emotional and layered central performances.