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How ‘Clemency’ Filmmaker Chinonye Chukwu Turned Her Pain Into the Year’s Most Empathetic Film

The 2011 execution of Troy Davis sparked emotions in the filmmaker that needed an outlet. Eight years later, it became a searing Sundance winner starring Alfre Woodard.

Chinonye Chukwu (Director)Neon Presents a New York Special Screening "CLEMENCY" a film by Chinonye Chukwu, New York, USA - 09 Dec 2019

Chinonye Chukwu

Marion Curtis/StarPix for Neon/Shutterstock

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It’s inevitable that Chinonye Chukwu’s beautifully made and deeply felt sophomore feature “Clemency” will inspire its audience to great emotion. The death row drama, starring Alfre Woodard as a prison warden coming to terms with the demands of her profession and Aldis Hodge as one of her inmates bound for execution, ably examines every facet of such relationships, unearthing both a finely-tuned pair of character studies and a wider look at the flaws of the penal system in the process. As Roger Ebert once explained, “movies are like a machine that generates empathy,” and no other film this year works harder, and with such deserved results, to generate that empathy quite like “Clemency.” That doesn’t mean it was always easy.

“It wasn’t until shooting the film that I realized how much of myself personally and emotionally informed this film,” Chukwu said during an interview with IndieWire this spring. “It took three and a half years to get the financing. My producer Bronwyn Cornelius and I were just pushing and pushing [to get it made], so you have this kind of like full-steam ahead attitude [happening]. I’m really good, like really good, at emotionally compartmentalizing and suppressing and focusing … and then you get the funding.”

Once Chukwu had the financing for her passion project in place, it was time to actually make the damn thing. For a little while, at least, that momentum kept even Chukwu from feeling the full emotional weight of her film.

“We’re like, ‘All right, we got this movie to make! We got to do it. We got to do it,'” she said. “Day five on set, the scene that comes after the moment where Bernadine breaks down the [execution] protocol, I started sobbing at the monitor. What the hell is happening? In that moment, I realized I was not allowing myself to feel, and I wasn’t giving space to my own humanity through this process. In some ways, by this emotional suppression, I was kind of cutting off my own humanity. I realized how much of myself was in this.”

For Chukwu, the process of making “Clemency” started in 2011, when Troy Davis was executed by the state of Georgia. “Hundreds of thousands of people around the world were protesting against his execution, including several retired wardens,” Chukwu remembered. “Leading up to his execution, the organizing, the activism around it really sparked a kind of consciousness in me around mass incarceration and capital punishment in a way that I just didn’t have that consciousness before. The morning after he was executed, I was feeling all kinds of emotions. But I was like, if we’re all navigating frustration and anger and sadness, what must it be like for the people who had to physically kill him? What is it like for your livelihood to be tied to the taking of human life?”

By 2013, the filmmaker was deep into an intense research process, including talking to a variety of key subjects, like “retired wardens and directors of corrections, and people who’ve been incarcerated, people who are incarcerated, lawyers, and chaplains, and activists, and organizers.” Chukwu also volunteered on her first clemency case, working on the media campaign for Tyra Patterson, who spent over 20 years in prison for a murder she always maintained she did not commit. (Patterson was released early on Christmas Day 2017.)

“I spent a lot of time talking with Tyra, and talking with other women who were incarcerated at Dayton Correctional Institution, and that really transformed me,” Chukwu said. “It expanded my capacity for empathy and compassion, and to not define people by their worst possible acts. I’ve been a college professor for over 10 years, and I’ve been helping students tell their stories, so [after] visiting Tyra and talking to other women in the prison who were incarcerated there, I thought me helping people tell their stories shouldn’t be confined to the college classroom.”

Chukwu created a film program in the women’s prison in Dayton where she taught incarcerated women how to make their own short films and produce script-to-screen. That wasn’t part of her research for what would become “Clemency,” but, as Chukwu explained, it was all part of the same passion to help people who are incarcerated. Chukwu worked on more than a dozen other clemency cases for women who were serving life sentences after defending themselves against their abusers.

“Clemency”

NEON / screencap

“That opened me up to talking to more and more people,” she said. “A lot of the wardens and people who were incarcerated, some people who are on death row, read my script, and ripped it apart, and gave me notes, and were meticulous about it for accuracy, and authenticity, and language. All of that really informed me, but it really transformed me in my advocacy and my activism was really developed and deepened through this process.”

Chukwu’s activism and research eventually bred “Clemency,” a radically empathetic and deeply emotional look at life inside death row. And, unlike other films of its ilk, like “The Green Mile” or “Dead Man Walking,” it’s told through the typically underseen perspective of a black female warden. For Chukwu, there was no other way she could tell the story.

“I just always knew she was going to be a black woman. I mean, there was no other thought,” Chukwu said. “I think that if the warden was a white man, the director wouldn’t explain that choice. It’s normalized. For me, this black female warden is normal, but I think it does add layers and complications that can be really powerful.”

It certainly doesn’t hurt that said warden, Bernadine Williams, is played by no less than Oscar nominee Alfre Woodard. The actress was attached to the role two years before Chukwu even entered pre-production. “I mean, she’s Alfre Woodard. She could emote so much with just her eyes,” Chukwu said. “That was necessary for this role, and it was such an exciting honor to be able to give her space to fully tap into her craft. It was exciting to witness her brilliance everyday on set. She gives a masterclass in acting. It was exciting to be able to just sit and talk about emotional arcs and what’s going on, and then she just executes.”

“Clemency” is by no means an easy film to watch, but it’s one that trusts its audience to understand and respect the tough material it covers. That trust extends to some of its more basic elements, like Chukwu’s choice to open in what seems like the middle of Bernadine and Anthony’s story, with Bernadine decades into her corrections career and Anthony mere weeks from his planned execution.

“I knew that I wanted the audiences to kind of jump into the middle of it while it’s happening. I didn’t want to explain too much. I didn’t want to set up too much,” she said. “I wanted the audiences to piece together as the story goes along. I didn’t want to make it easy at all for the audiences, and for them to just really observe, and to feel, and to sense. The other reason is Anthony. We don’t really know much about his case, and that was 100% intentional. I don’t want this to be about, did he do it or not? I don’t want this to be about litigation. This is about feeling the humanities of these people. Even if we don’t know all the facts and details of their lives, you cannot deny that they are human. That was really my intention in the storytelling.”

Secure in her intentions, Chukwu stayed open to revisions. That included plenty of hard ones. “The one moment of revision that I will always remember, that was so harrowing, was the scene where Bernadine is telling Anthony the protocol, the process,” she said. “I had a version of that that had language like ‘when you die’ and words like ‘kill’ and things like that, and there was one warden who said, ‘No, we don’t say “die.” We don’t personalize. It’s “when the procedure is complete,” you don’t say “you.” You have to depersonalize it, and it is about the procedure.’ That was so harrowing, so harrowing.”

Years of research and a well of personal passion didn’t bolster the filmmaker’s ego; they appear to have only made her more receptive to the possibilities of the process, and how necessary it was to include others. “Those kinds of revisions and corrections were happening throughout the revision process, but also through pre-production, as well,” Chukwu said. “I had some wardens on speed dial throughout pre-production, throughout production. We flew in a former warden on set who did the blocking for the execution scenes of actors. I was really committed to getting this as authentic as possible, but also involving the very community of people who I was representing as much as possible.”

“Clemency” closes out with one last bit of bruising authenticity, hinging on a single-take shot that focuses on Woodard’s face during a pivotal moment for Bernadine. It’s a big gamble for any filmmaker, and Chukwu admits to some early reservations about how it would actually take shape, before landing on her answer.

Clemency

“Clemency”

NEON

“That was one take, and I knew that I wanted to have a moment like that,” Chukwu said. “I knew that we needed to experience that last scene in real time, like in some way, we needed to have a super-slow, emotional evolution in that. It wasn’t clear to me that it would be Bernadine until pre-production. I talked to Alfre about it, and she was totally down, totally down. Everybody was on board. I knew that that moment needed to happen, and it needed to happen on Bernadine because it was about her emotional reaction and progression to that moment, not seeing the events of that moment. It was culmination of her arc. It was the culmination of the narrative arc. It’s where this film has to go.”

Like the years-long process to make “Clemency,” the scene was ultimately the product of careful planning and delicate discussion. It’s not just the culmination of Bernadine’s arc, it’s also the arc of the film, of Chukwu’s own passion and drive to make it. “By the time we were ready to shoot that moment, we had talked so much about it beforehand,” she said. “It was just a matter of, ‘All right, Alfre, the moment is here. We’re just going to stay on you. It’s going to be a couple minutes. And you won’t know when…,’ I told the actor playing against her how long it’s going to be before she says her line to break the moment, but I didn’t tell Alfre. Eric Branco, my cinematographer, he just kept it rolling.”

The film is now in theaters nearly a year after its Sundance premiere, where Chukwu was overwhelmed by the outpouring of audience response. “There’s a bit of emotional distancing, because making this film was so emotionally draining, and so I’m trying to distance myself to try to recuperate all of that,” she said. “People have sobbed in my arms after watching it, and I’m so honored and humbled by that.”

There was also a healthy outpouring of awards emotion, and the film ultimately won the festival’s top prize, the Grand Jury Prize in the storied U.S. Dramatic section. It was a big enough honor on its own, but it came with some added weight: Chukwu was the first black female director to earn the prize. While she confessed to not even realizing the groundbreaking element of her win until she read about it on, yes, IndieWire, she’s more interested in exploring why it is that she was the one to break that barrier and how it might raise the profile of the film, not just her.

“It’s just like, ‘Why has it taken so long?,'” she said. “It’s something that I recognize the magnitude of it, but I’m like, I shouldn’t have been the first. It’s flattering, and it’s exciting, but it’s not something that I’m expecting. It’s not something that I’m focused on. I really, really am intentional about a practice of detaching from the ego of it. The power of the film is not tied to that, and certainly my living is not tied to that.”

Chukwu added with a laugh, “I would be honored by any kinds of awards recognition, because it would help increase the platform for a film like this. If those kinds of awards will do that, I welcome it all, and I’m excited about it. And if it extends the reach of it, bring it on. Bring it on! I’ll be very, very honored and excited.”

“Clemency” is now in theaters.

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