Imagine if you had a few hours to live. What would you want to be your last meal? Knowing you can have any platter of your choice, would you want steak, shrimp, salmon? That’s the question Alfre Woodard’s character coldly poses to a prisoner on death row in director Chinonye Chukwu’s harrowing movie “Clemency.”
A film which revolves around a prison warden enduring the psychological stress of working on death row, it’s a project which has taken several years to hit the big screen. First, there was the extensive research as Chukwu, inspired by Troy Davis, a death row prisoner who was executed in Georgia in 2011 penned the script.
Months of edits followed as she sent out drafts to wardens, interviewed corrections officers, death row lawyers, lieutenants and a director of corrections about their experiences working in death row facilities. Then came the final stage, the burdensome task of getting it financed.
“It took about three and a half years to get it financed and everybody said no for a variety of reasons,” shares the filmmaker and social justice advocate. “The script was always great, but some people were just not onboard with a black woman being a protagonist. For some, the subject matter was too hard, the tone was not upbeat enough or I was not a big enough name for them to bank on.”
Shot in 17 days “Clemency” stars Alfre Woodard as Bernadine Williams, a prison warden facing her 13th execution who has to confront the psychological and emotional demons her job creates. Wendell Pierce plays her long-suffering husband Jonathan, and Aldis Hodge is the prisoner awaiting execution for a murder he claims he did not commit.
It’s a strong film, made stronger by terrific performances. Hodge’s acting has ruthless honesty and his insistence of innocence moves us deeply. He is fighting for his life and his male identity, as he faces the certainty of execution. Woodard’s challenge is even harder: playing a poker faced professional, who battles the guilt of 12 executions and drowns her demons with alcohol. It’s an incredibly tough compelling role, which is deeply felt.
This isn’t your typical run of the mill melodramatic depiction of prison life and is a simple diatribe against capital punishment. With her opening scene of a botched execution, Chukwu manages a shatteringly effective few minutes by showing us how capital punishment works in every gruesome and dehumanizing detail. With “Clemency,” she is asking the audience to consider what it really means to take a human life and what’s admirable is that she does offer a gritty realistic look into the psychology scars of those who work behind the prison walls and perform these executions. In making Woodard the protagonist, she creates empathy for Bernadine’s character forcing audiences to connect to the humanities that exist between prison walls.
“I want empathy and compassion to be expended for people who are incarcerated. I am assuming a lot of people who watch this film have never thought about capital punishment and the humanities at stake when it comes to capital punishment and incarceration,” shares Chukwu, a Nigerian American filmmaker from Imo State whose previous brilliant offerings “A Long Walk” and “AlaskaLand,” which follows the lives of an estranged Nigerian-American brother and sister both touch on loneliness and isolation.
“With ‘Clemency’ and ‘A Long Walk’ and other shorts that I have made, I was searching for something and I think that I was exploring loneliness and isolation in some way and ‘Clemency’ is kind of like the ultimate exploration of that,” adds Chukwu, the founder of Pens to Pictures, a filmmaking collaborative that teaches and empowers incarcerated women to make their own short films, from script to screen.
A powerful and intelligent piece of work, “Clemency” won the Grand Jury Award in the US Dramatic Competition at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival earlier this year making her the first black woman to win that accolade. It’s a huge accomplishment her family in Nigeria are incredibly proud of.
“I remember my mom texting me months ago saying you made Niaja FM. For her, that was the big deal,” she shares. “They have been so proud of me. As this trajectory is so outside of their petroleum engineering background, they are glad that I kept doing it and I am trying to go all the way with it because there is nothing less than personal excellence in a Nigerian household,” adds Chukwu who says she would love to direct work that is set in Nigeria and establish more relationships with the filmmaking community there.
“Clemency” has also been tapped by several film critic organizations as a favorite for 2019. AAFCA named it as one of their top ten films of 2019 and has also earned several Independent Spirit Award nominations for the filmmaker whose next project is writing and directing an adaptation of Elaine Brown’s memoir, “Taste of Power,” a book about the Black Panther party’s first and only female leader.
There are hopes of doing a comedy project, making a movie which explores the diaspora experience and even a musical, but for now, Chukwu just plans to enjoy the fruits of her labor.
“I am going to take a couple of weeks to process as it’s been a journey. The struggle has been allowing myself to thrive because I am used to climbing uphill and used to the struggle, used to the rejection and used to the no. I am used to having to hustle and this year has really been about allowing myself to enjoy the fruits of my labor and to get ready for the next level or stage of my career.”
“Clemency” also stars Richard Schiff, Danielle Brooks, Michael O’Neill, Richard Gunn and releases in US theaters December 27. Check out the trailer below:
by Samantha Ofole Prince