This year's edition of New Directors/New Films, boasting one of its strongest slates in recent memory, runs through April 7 at The Film Society of Lincoln Center and the Museum of Modern Art. Below are five notable selections. For more information and to purchase tickets, visit the festival's website.
Clemency (Chinonye Chukwu) *OPENING NIGHT FILM
Somber, silent long takes are the main stylistic hallmarks of Chukwu's Sundance Grand Jury Prize-winning second feature, which joins such recent films as Barry Jenkins' If Beale Street Could Talk and Carlos Lopez Estrada's Blindspotting, as well as earlier works as Ava Duvernay's Middle of Nowhere, in exploring the devastating impact mass incarceration visits on black and Latino people, both as individuals and larger communities.
In contrast to the films I've cited above, Clemency examines this subject not from the main perspective of the incarcerated and their loved ones, but from those on the other side of the criminal justice divide, those tasked with enforcing the state's punishments enacted upon its citizens. The central character is Bernadine Williams (Alfre Woodard, in a powerful yet remarkably subtle and nuanced performance), a warden at a maximum security prison, part of whose job entails overseeing the executions of death row inmates.
The harrowing opening scene, in which a lethal injection procedure goes horribly wrong, delves the audience immediately in the gruesome nuts and bolts of state-sanctioned killing. Bernadine's job has taken a mighty toll on her personal life, to the point where her relationship with her husband (Wendell Pierce) barely has a pulse, much like death row inmates right before they pass away. When she comes across Anthony Woods (Aldis Hodge), the latest inmate about to be executed, who may very well be innocent of the crime he's accused of, Bernadine's facade of dispassionate professionalism begins to crack.
Full of wonderful, compelling performances by Woodard, Pierce, Hodge, and Danielle Brooks (in a powerful scene as a woman from Anthony's past), Clemency impresses with its artful examination of a very racially, socially, and politically fraught issue. And in a late scene that focuses for a very long time on Bernadine's tear-stained face, like a contemporary version of Dreyer's Joan of Arc, it's clear that the film's title refers to something sought not only by the death row inmates, but by Bernadine as well.