Writer-director Chinonye Chukwu’s delivers a gut-wrenching, devastating drama on the death penalty that deservedly won the Grand Jury prize at Sundance, making Chuwaka the first black woman to win the award.
Warden Bernadine played by Alfre Woodard, is preparing for her 12th execution, she is methodical, calm and capable of keeping her emotions firmly in control even when the opening execution does not go to plan and we witness the prisoner suffer unnecessarily for a longer than he should have, she still remains in charge and gets the job done and we believe that she hasn’t been as effected as some male members of her execution team.
This is as far removed from the truth as can be imagined, the death around her is destroying her peace of mind, her marriage as she spends more time at the local bar with her work colleagues than at home with her husband Jonathan, played by Wendell Pierce, but also she suffers from bouts insomnia and nightmares throughout as it becomes more and more evident that she is not entirely at ease with system that she works in.
Bernadine is in a male-dominated environment and her toughness must never be undermined by any sign of weakness, whether it’s dealing with families, campaigners or members of her own staff as she runs a tight ship, she is good at what she does and takes her profession seriously. When her husband points out that they have given much more to their jobs than they have to their marriage and they should consider retiring together she irritated and dismisses his suggestion highlighting how much of disconnect there is between them.
When her latest prisoner Anthony Woods, played by the excellent Aldis Hodge, is being prepared for his execution we go through his journey of trying to make peace with the fact that he will never be free again and is likely that he will die alone with only his lawyer and the minister by his side.
As her latest prisoner’s time of death is recorded the steely composure of Bernadine breaks and we finally see the true level of suffering and trauma that she is going through.