‘Clemency’: Alfre Woodard Opposes the Death Penalty, but Found Her Prison Warden’s Humanity

The veteran actress reflects on one of her most personal projects to date, and a performance that puts her in the Oscar race.

Led by Alfre Woodard, “Clemency” digs into grave social issues for engrossing drama. The veteran actress plays Bernadine Williams, a prison warden who must confront the psychological toll of her job after years of carrying out death-row executions. Personally, she as been a longtime critic of the death penalty, but what’s most important to her is that this personal film be widely seen.

“This film is everything we intended it to be and I’m anxious for it to get to the public, but not just at the arthouse theaters, in the mall multiplexes as well,” Woodard said. “Because every month that goes by, people are put to death. Some of them might have done what they are accused of, and some might have not. But the point is to get this out to as many people as possible and see what kind of dialogue it creates.”

Woodard recalled speaking out to stop the highly-publicized execution of former gang leader and convicted murderer Stanley “Tookie” Williams in 2005. She participated in public events that petitioned for clemency, which helped spark debate on the status of the death penalty in California. Then-Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger rejected the appeals and Williams was executed on December 13, 2005.

“As a spiritual person, I have always been staunchly against the death penalty because it doesn’t sit with my values,” Woodard said. However, she was curious about the interior life of a warden like Bernadine Williams and as star and executive producer, she had decided input on the script and character.

“I initially thought, you’d really have to be dispassionate to be in their position, or you have to put your passion somewhere else,” she said. “The image I had in my head was of people getting ulcers, drinking all night, and going through three or four marriages. So I was really enthusiastic to find out, to learn, to evolve and be involved.”

Woodard and “Clemency” writer-director Chinonye Chukwu visited four prisons in Ohio, where they met with wardens, men on death row, and incarcerated women. This opened her eyes to certain realities, which drew her in even further.

“As the actor, I can’t judge the character, and my job is to make sure that I’m seeing this through the eyes of a warden who has carried out multiple executions,” she said. “I learned a lot when Chinonye took me to the prisons, because I hadn’t really considered the psychological toll on the people who oversee these really barbaric acts.”

She was most surprised to learn that there are female wardens, and even more specifically black female wardens. Many of them come from the mental health profession or social work, with degrees in psychology. Woodard soon realized it was necessary training to survive in that environment.

“Even in the most cruel of situations, they’re charged with keeping order, and maintaining protocol, otherwise, things can go to hell in a hand basket pretty fast in a prison,” she said. “So it’s about maintaining your composure, being in control of your emotions. Also knowing how to communicate, whether it’s with the correction officers or the prisoners, or their families, it takes great skill. I discovered a newfound understanding for what these women do. Although I couldn’t do it myself.”

Woodard knew that Bernadine’s stoicism as a prison warden in gut-wrenching situations might make the character unlikable. For her, it was more important to find the dignity in the characters and the process. Research told her that it was important for Bernadine to be highly effective in her position, especially in a job that women might not expected to be suited for.

“The warden sets the tone for what the culture of the prison is, and how it’s run, so it matters a lot,” she said. “People say, ‘Oh gosh, she’s really mean’. But she’s a stickler for protocol. She absolutely has to be, especially as a woman.”

Playing Bernadine didn’t change Woodard’s views on the death penalty. In fact, it reinforced them.

“More people in America are against the death penalty, but there are still states where it’s law, and I don’t feel comfortable with my tax dollars going toward that,” she said. “But you can watch the film and come to empathize with Bernadine, while still feeling strongly against what she does. I just hope it leads to conversation.”

According to the ACLU, African Americans are disproportionately represented in prisons, as well as those on death row and among those who have been executed. “Clemency” could have become more of a political statement, but Woodard didn’t want that.

“One of my concerns coming into the project, was, as I told Chinonye, it had to be entirely separate from our own real-life social action work,” she said. “I make political statements, but that’s not what I want to do with my work as an actress. Our shared experiences as black people meant that we were both aware of a system that’s been historically unfair to us, and, on that level, we trusted each other. So we didn’t need to have those conversations. We just told a human story.”

Bernadine is not defined by race, but rarely are black actresses given this kind of meaty, leading role, especially one with Oscar potential in a very competitive Best Actress race. Woodard is aware of this, although she’s also practical about what it could all mean.

“I’ll just say this, if Oscar buzz, or buzz in general, gets me and Chinonye the budgets for our next films, or for the pile of scripts we each have, then buzz is great,” said Woodard, who was previously nominated as Best Supporting Actress for her performance in Martin Ritt’s romantic drama “Cross Creek.” “Otherwise, it’s like a baby contest.”

“Clemency” world premiered at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival, where it won the U.S. Dramatic Grand Jury Prize and made Chukwu the first black woman to win the award. Neon will release the film December 27, 2019.

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