Chinonye Chukwu’s ‘Clemency’ Will Devastate You, Which Is Precisely Her Goal

The drama, starring Alfre Woodard, focuses on the inner turmoil of a death row prison warden on the verge of a breakdown

Photos: NEON

Warning: This piece contains spoilers from the film Clemency

AAfter the first act in Chinonye Chukwu’s Clemency settles, it becomes clear that the world the director and screenwriter has brought to life lies in the protagonists’ sorrowful brown eyes. Unlike some of her peers, the Nigerian-born screenwriter and director doesn’t rely on long monologues or heavy-handed chitchat to convey the pain, despair, and terror her characters are facing in the halls of a men’s maximum security prison.

Chukwu, 34, seems to have followed the same advice she often gives the film students she teaches at Wright State University: “Show, don’t tell.” And what she shows us through every look, eye flutter, and tear will haunt the hell out of you.

“So much of this story is about the internal battles they face, so the life is in the silence, Chukwu tells ZORA.

In these quiet moments, we learn that Bernadine, a Black female prison warden (played by Alfre Woodard), is at an emotional crossroads after overseeing a botched lethal injection. Meanwhile, death row inmate Anthony Woods (Aldis Hodge), who has pushed everyone away and wallowed in his hopelessness for nearly 15 years, is fighting to find a glimmer of hope via a call from the governor as his execution nears.

In the final days that they both knew were coming, the lives of the inmate and the prison guard force us to reexamine our stance on capital punishment. Is it possible to die with dignity in a system that has none? And if your job is to end people’s lives, can you walk away unscathed to fully live your own?

Alfre Woodard (left) with “Clemency” writer and director Chinonye Chukwu (right)

Having cried through two-thirds of the film, including weeping as the credits rolled, I’m not surprised that Clemency won the U.S. Dramatic Grand Jury Prize at Sundance earlier this year, making Chukwu the first Black woman to earn this honor. (In 2012, Ava DuVernay became the first Black woman to win the best director award at the festival for Middle of Nowhere.)

Art this powerful is usually personal, and Clemency is no different. In 2011, the execution of Troy Davis rattled Chukwu. She watched the case unfold. Davis, an African American man from Georgia, was sentenced to death for the murder of a police officer despite a lack of physical evidence linking Davis to the crime. That story ushered in anger and a sense of duty for Chukwu.

“I was so moved by the thousands of people protesting his execution, including the wardens that wrote letters to the governor in Troy’s defense, writing about the psychological and emotional impact they face carrying out these executions,” she recalls. “The morning after Troy was executed I remember being frustrated and sad, so I was like, ‘If I’m feeling this way, what does it feel like to be the people that actually had to kill him?’”

TThough it took only 17 days to shoot the film, Chukwu spent years laying down its foundation, which included moving to Ohio to teach at a small college, volunteering at a legal organization specializing in clemency cases and interviewing numerous wardens and incarcerated women along the way.

“I knew nothing about prisons. During the first week of research, I had to Google “what wardens do,” she admits. “So doing this work, I take this seriously because I take a great responsibility in the power I have to tell stories and I know for a lot of people, this will be their first time entering this type of space. It needed to be done with integrity.”

Chukwu also asked for feedback on her script from incarcerated women and wardens in the Ohio prison system. She sought “permission” to tell this story, and to tell it right. Cinematically and storywise, this thoughtfulness pays off. Moviegoers will believe every moment, every protocol, and every emotion portrayed on screen.

Woodard had a similar approach, telling ZORA that most of the work she did for the film wasn’t done on set. It was done on the ground with her “very committed” director by her side.

“Chinonye took me to Ohio to meet with wardens, deputy wardens, all sistas. We sat down and had meals together. I listened to them, heard them. I also visited with death row prisoners, and I believe we did this prep work together,” Woodard says. “So after bearing witness, having the privilege to take in their hearts, emotions and their intelligence, I was ready to share those stories on set.”

Doing this work, I take this seriously because I take a great responsibility in the power I have to tell stories and I know for a lot of people, this will be their first time entering this type of space. It needed to be done with integrity.

As a result, the four-time Emmy winner and Oscar nominee delivers one of the most stoic and moving performances of this year.

Bernadine, with her perfectly coiffed hair and neatly pressed navy blue suit, seems like the epitome of order and control. But on the inside, she is deeply fractured, struggling to hold on to her sanity, using liquor to wash away the filth that death has left behind. She can’t sleep, her marriage to her husband Jonathan (Wendell Pierce) is falling apart and, as a woman in a male-dominated field, she refuses to give them a chance to call her “hysterical.” So Bernadine tries to hide her feelings and signs of PTSD. But as we creep closer to Anthony’s execution, Bernadine creeps closer to imploding with self-loathing and guilt.

It’s rare to see Black female characters this nuanced on the big screen, almost as rare as seeing Black female prison wardens in a system that disproportionately punishes people who look like them. While some people have characterized Senator Kamala Harris as “a cop” due to her record as a prosecutor, centering a character like Bernadine in a story like Clemency is an interesting and telling choice.

But Woodard asks, “Why not us?”

“These prisons are full of our folks and it’s going to go on without us, so who do you want in administration there?” she asks before offering her own answer: “A woman. Especially a Black woman. [She] will show you compassion and nurture you. Someone who understands the psychology of who we are.”

“Bernadine is that person. Her compassion is the fact that she will keep it calm, keep protocol. She won’t let your knees buckle on the way down there, she will talk to you till the end.”

WWhile there’s Oscar buzz for Woodard — plus an Independent Spirit Award nomination for best actress — Hodge, who plays Anthony, cannot and should not be overlooked.

Known for the canceled WGN drama Underground and Netflix’s Black Mirror, Hodge breathes life and humanity into his character. Hodge’s performance pushes us to see Anthony as more than a statistic; more than the tired flat trope of an alleged cop killer; more than a hardened death row inmate.

Anthony is a man at a crossroads, teetering between feeling nothing and everything while behind bars. He pushes everyone away, like his dedicated lawyer Marty (Richard Schiff) as a way to self-isolate. But he draws close to his ex-girlfriend Yvette (brilliantly played by Danielle Brooks), who gives him newfound hope during a visit. Anthony has yet to accept that death is coming, but has been acting like a dead man walking for years. It’s a beautiful and heartbreaking performance that will stay with you weeks after you leave the theater.

Hodge, however, admits that he was unsure about taking the role. Especially after playing an incarcerated character in the film Brian Banks.

“I have a criteria when it comes to roles I take on. Is this just another story about Black people being prison for no reason, like c’mon? There has to be a reason for it,” he says. “But after reading the script, which was brilliant, and talking to Chinonye, I saw that she wanted to attacking a problem and spark a conversation we need to be having as a society about death row and capital punishment. This film has a great opportunity to educate people, so I was all in.”

Being “all in” for Hodge meant exploring every moment he could, which came naturally when you have with a director you trust, he adds.

“Chinoye didn’t waste anything in this film. Every word means something, every breath means something different and every scene and character matters. There’s value in Anthony’s life and that matters.”

Sadly, even as we find out there is no physical evidence proving that Anthony shot the officer, there is no last-minute reprieve. Yet, even as Anthony is strapped to the chair, gasping for his very last breath, Chukwu never denies him his humanity. Where Queen & Slim may have relished a bit too much in the “art” and “importance” of showing dead Black bodies, Chukwu chose something different.

For people who might not have thought about [capital punishment] or what it means to be locked up, I want for this to open their eyes. I want this to be about having more empathy and compassion for people living behind prison walls.

“Narratively [it] is Bernadine’s story, so we needed to refocus on her and show her emotional response and evolution. But honestly, I don’t want to see another Black person die on screen,” she says. “For me in this film, I could not justify why you would need to see that. I don’t think it advances the narrative forward and it would seem irresponsible for my film.”

Clemency isn’t an easy film to watch. Viewing it filled me with an overwhelming sense of dread. But looking back, I have a fuller awareness of the issue, which is what Chukwu hopes her audience takes away from the film.

“For people who might not have thought about [capital punishment] or what it means to be locked up, I want for this to open their eyes,” she says. “I want this to be about having more empathy and compassion for people living behind prison walls, in a way that to see someone’s humanity is not contingent upon knowing their innocence or guilt.”

Clemency hits select theaters in New York and Los Angeles on December 27 and nationwide January 2.

Kellee Terrell is an award-winning filmmaker and journalist, loving daughter, zombie slayer and most importantly, not the one.