As the 2019 Sundance Film Festival’s Grand Jury Prize winner, bring a box of tissues to Clemency and prepare to share them with your fellow viewers.

Warden Bernadine Williams (Alfre Woodard) is a by-the-books prison administrator. She has to be in order to ensure the day-to-day safety of her inmates and staff. We are constantly confronted with the irony that keeping prisoners safe includes those on Death Row who are being kept alive so they can be killed. This forms the basis for our plot. Bernadine’s prison houses convicts facing state-sanctioned death and everyone knows it and has to deal with it in their own way. Despite the administrators’ best efforts to formalize an execution process, no one can normalize the experience.

What is it like for a tenured prison guard to repeatedly strap down another human being to be killed? We watch very tough guys who are just doing their job cry. What is it like for a bureaucrat to routinely process paperwork that is all about death? He has to transfer to a prison that does not carry out executions. What’s it like for a family of a murder victim to visit a prison where protestors are advocating on behalf of the murderer? They want retribution. They want closure to their suffering.

But mostly we focus on two main characters – Death Row inmate, Anthony Woods (Aldis Hodge) and Bernadine. Woods is a tough character. He’s been sitting on Death Row for over 15 years through appeals and general criminal justice bureaucracy. He’s stoic, there’s not much for him to say. But as his appeals wind down and his execution is becoming more and more likely, he cracks. Woods’ frustration is uncontainable yet so often unspoken, with Hodge’s acting telling the audience everything they need to know. A shred of hope presents itself and we watch the rollercoaster of emotions as hope raises then fades, leaving nothing left but emptiness before the inevitable execution. Hodge hits every scene out of the park delivering a truly hardened criminal who is softened by imminent death.

Of the characters not facing execution, Warden Bernadine suffers the biggest emotional toll. Years of efficiently and effectively managing executions are destroying her soul. Her marriage is crumbling because routinely working towards the death of her wards means she has to shut off her love, even for her husband. She tries so hard to compartmentalize her work from the deaths and from her personal life, it’s an exhausting and impossible demand. Warden Bernadine watches her friends and families and colleagues contemplate retirement, yet she cannot admit to herself that she is the one who needs to quit more than anyone else.

The power of Clemency is in writer/director Chinonye Chukwu’s script and the cinematography. There are maybe three long shots in the entire movie, with so much of our time spent in close-ups. This creates a claustrophobic feeling in prison scenes and a sense of intimacy with all characters who are surrounded by death. Most jarringly, we have countless close-ups of silent tears. Prisoners, jailers, professionals, no one is spared from the camera’s tight focus. And we, the audience, are never spared a chance to breathe, to relax. Rather the camerawork builds the tension and heightens the emotions our characters suffer. The final scene is a true finale, a three-minute culmination of all the camerawork and character building that has led up to that moment. That’s when you’ll really need the tissues.

This story is not directly advocating against the death penalty. In fact, there is service paid to the closure that a victim’s family expect from the ultimate punishment of a convicted felon. Rather, Clemency tells the story of everyone surrounding the death penalty. This is not your average prison flick, this is a profoundly emotional expression of what it is like to be surrounded by death.