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Sundance: ‘Clemency’ Filmmaker Chinonye Chukwu Is First Black Woman to Win Biggest Prize

She joins Desiree Akhavan, Ryan Coogler, Damien Chazelle, Rebecca Miller, and many more as winning the Grand Jury Prize for their U.S. Dramatic entries.

Chinonye Chukwu, writer/director of "Clemency," addresses the audience before the screening of her film at the LIbrary Center Theatre during the 2019 Sundance Film Festival, in Park City, Utah2019 Sundance Film Festival - "Clemency" Premiere, Park City, USA - 27 Jan 2019

Chinonye Chukwu

Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP/REX/Shutterstock

It was a banner year for female filmmakers at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, as each of the four Grand Jury Prizes given to competition films — the festival’s highest honors, as voted on by individual juries — was directed or co-directed by a female filmmaker. But “Clemency” filmmaker Chinonye Chukwu broke down a new barrier: she’s the first black woman to win the the festival’s biggest prize, the Grand Jury Prize for her U.S. Dramatic entry. Chukwu both wrote and directed the death row drama, which stars Alfre Woodard as a prison warden struggling with the emotional demands of her job.

In IndieWire’s review, Eric Kohn wrote of the film, “Alfre Woodard embodies the extraordinary challenges of a woman tasked with sending men to their death, while bottling up her emotions so tight she looks as if she might blow. Writer-director Chinonye Chukwu’s second feature maintains the quiet, steady rhythms of a woman so consumed by her routine that by the end of the opening credits, it appears to have consumed her humanity as well.”

She joins Desiree Akhavan, Ryan Coogler, Debra Granik, Damien Chazelle, and many more big names as winning the Grand Jury Prize for their U.S. Dramatic entries. Chukwu previously directed the 2012 drama “alaskaLand,” and has been directing short films since 2009.

In 2012, director Ava DuVernay became the first black woman to win a directing award at the annual festival, for her second narrative offering, “Middle of Nowhere.”

This year’s other Grand Jury Prize winners include Nanfu Wang’s “One Child Nation” (U.S. Documentary), Joanna Hogg’s “The Souvenir” (World Dramatic), and Tamara Kotevska and Ljubomir Stefanov’s “Honeyland” (World Documentary). Of note, last year’s winners boasted four female directors taking home the individual directing awards, including Sara Colangelo, Alexandria Bombach, Sandi Tan, and Isold Uggadottir.

At this year’s festival, women directed 46 percent of the competition films, representing 56 films across four categories. In the U.S. Dramatic Feature category, female filmmakers were the majority: They comprised 56 percent of all directors, helming 16 films.

“Clemency” is still seeking U.S. distribution.

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