TORONTO — Two films at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival offer different perspectives of how death row affects those closest to it when people are wrongly sentenced to die.
Clemency is the sophomore feature effort from writer-director Chinonye Chukwu, who also directed the 2012 film alaskaLand. It stars Alfre Woodard as Bernadine, a prison warden who grows more and more conflicted over her role in the execution of prisoners. It’s bad enough when Bernadine witnesses an execution via lethal injection that turns into a moment of torture, first when the emergency medical technician administering the IV cannot find a vein, and then when the drugs take longer to work than they’re supposed to, leaving the prisoner in agony.
Then, Bernadine struggles to reconcile what it means to be good at her job with her own opinions, as she follows the case of another death row inmate, Anthony Woods (Aldis Hodge). As it becomes clear to Bernadine that Anthony is probably innocent, she tries to maintain order and composure in her prison. But the energy it takes to maintain her professional demeanor at work means that something else must be sacrificed, and in Bernadine’s case, it’s her marriage. The more her husband (Wendell Pierce) attempts to get close to her, the more she pulls away. Bernadine must ask herself: Is it possible to be ethical, to be empowered, when being skilled at one’s job means ensuring that the state’s unjust decisions are completed with order and clockwork precision?
Then there’s Just Mercy from director Destin Daniel Cretton (I Am Not a Hipster, Short Term 12). Co-produced by star Michael B. Jordan and Macro, the company of former William Morris agent Charles D. King. If Clemency is an examination of the toll of complicity, Just Mercy is a journey into the psychic and spiritual rewards and pitfalls of fighting injustice. It tells the story of a real-life civil rights hero: Bryan Stevenson, the founder of the Equal Justice Initiative. Stevenson is probably best known as the person behind the new lynching memorial and museum in Montgomery, Alabama, but he has spent decades working to free innocent men, most of them black, from death row.
While it’s rewarding work, it’s not easy, which Stevenson, played by Michael B. Jordan, learns firsthand when he moves to Monroe County, Alabama, after graduating from Harvard Law. Stevenson tries to get a stay of execution for Herbert Richardson (Rob Morgan), a Vietnam veteran suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. In the war, he was a hero, an expert at defusing bombs. But back home and neglected by the country he served, Herbert ends up listening to the voices in his head telling him to build an explosive. He kills a woman, and then the state of Alabama moves to kill him. The possibility of sending Herbert to a mental institution, which is where he truly belongs, never even materializes.
For Stevenson, witnessing Herbert’s execution crystallizes the urgency of his work, and he dives even more deeply into trying to save another man, Walter “Johnny D.” McMillan (Jamie Foxx). McMillan has been imprisoned for a murder he didn’t commit. It doesn’t matter how much evidence there is to support McMillan’s innocence because a white girl is dead, McMillan is black, and another prisoner, in exchange for prosecutorial leniency, has given a statement saying McMillan was responsible.
The real reason McMillan is in prison is because the white people of Monroe County were looking for an excuse to lock him up after a white man discovered McMillan having a consensual affair with the man’s wife. Just Mercy exposes how the cogs of the Alabama justice system line up to condemn McMillan to death — from prosecutors who disregard the truth to public defenders who barely do their jobs to sheriff’s officers who terrorize Monroe County’s black residents.
It’s a new twist on the old formula of Yankee lawyers who come to the South and find a wall of community resistance to racial equality and injustice, but it’s a powerful one. That’s especially true given how the film’s screenwriters (Cretton and Andrew Lanham) contrast the real-life Stevenson and Monroe County’s most famous legal hero, Atticus Finch, the fictional hero of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird.
Ultimately, both Clemency and Just Mercy continue the work of highlighting racial inequality in the justice system, leaving their viewers disturbed and impatient for change.