This poignant, behind-the-scenes look at the inhumanity that follows death penalty convictions could point the heated debate about capital punishment in a new direction.
Part of Bernadine Williams’ (Alfre Woodard) duties as a prison warden is to carry out death row executions. She’s organized and directed the last moments of countless prisoners’ lives. Sensitive, prepared and orderly—almost to a fault. It’s as if her routine is her rock: Rehearse the staff. Arrange last meal. Be cordial to lawyers and families. Oversee lethal injections. Repeat.
Never an emotion on her face, she dispenses compassion with detached feelings. Like an overworked funeral director on a busy day. Outwardly, she looks unflappable and has had few failures. Then there’s that inevitable catastrophe. One that weighs on her psyche, keeps her distant from her husband (Wendell Pierce) and aggravates a drinking problem.
Writer/director Chinonye Chukwu has done her homework. Her drama is not about the alpha males in incarceration that lord over inmates. Or brawls on the prison rec yard. Or redemption. It’s about the toll legally killing people levies, on all involved.
Slow steady drama builds and builds. Each moment takes you deeper and deeper inside the soul of a prison exec who is forced to question a disheartening existence with no happy ending in sight. The ambitious premise, as developed in a thoughtful screenplay, plays out intelligently and emotionally as events careen toward a day of reckoning.
Woodard deftly carries the weight of her character and the subject matter. She creates a protagonist who is likeable yet unapproachable and somehow doesn’t make that a contradiction. Her supporting cast is exceptional: Aldis Hodge as the cop-killer next in line for death; Richard Schiff the convict’s hopeful lawyer; Danielle Brooks a person from the prisoner’s past; and Wendell Pierce the husband who watches his wife’s essence fade way bit by bit.
An ominous cloud follows Warden Williams everywhere. That gray atmosphere is aptly documented by cinematographer Eric Branco. He knows how to light a prison cell, dank bar room and messy home. Phyllis Housen’s editing gives the footage a funeral dirge’s rhythm. Production designer Margaux Rust and costume designer Suzanne Barnes partner up on colors, settings and clothes that depict a very drab working-class life. Jazz/pop artist Laura Mvula adds her angelic voice to the soundtrack.
By the end of the movie, you’re not sure if Williams is a saint in trouble or an abettor whose time has come. Her dilemma will make you ponder her circumstances and the ethics of judicial executions. Getting you to that point is why Chinonye Chukwu is equal parts filmmaker, educator, intellectual and sage.