Chinonye Chukwu’s Clemency is extraordinary, and for a host of distinct, tangible reasons. There’s a shot of Alfre Woodard, as prison warden Bernadine Williams who oversees executions at her facility, that lingers unbroken for over three-and-a-half minutes: A close-up of her face as her soul is practically draining out of her and she does whatever she can to keep as much of it as she can. There’s Chukwu’s tasteful use of scoring and lack of overt preaching—she consciously crafted a movie about the death penalty that doesn’t preach or even overtly contend with a good/evil binary. “I can’t tell you what to think and what to feel,” she told Jezebel earlier this month in an in-person interview. “[But] by so focusing on the humanities that are at stake in this world, you are gonna feel something.”
By focusing on the final steps of the capital-punishment process, when decisions have been made and those hired to carry them out did not have any say in their deliberation, Chukwu has created a meditation on power and its absence, an excavation of systemic finer points that frequently go ignored, an up-close look at how humanity functions under immutable sentencing. Clemency is about Bernadine, but more than that, it’s about what happens to Bernadine as the scheduled execution of a man in her prison, Anthony Woods (Aldis Hodge). The movie is the second feature from Chukwu, who was born in Nigeria and moved with her family to Alaska. It was inspired by the 2011 execution of Troy Davis—reeling, Chukwu began researching the death penalty and eventually began working with inmates and volunteering on clemency cases. This lived-in experience has yielded a highly sophisticated, rare thing: a movie about capital punishment whose storytelling relies on subtlety.
Clemency won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance this year—the first for a movie directed by a black woman. It’s had Oscar buzz, though it received no Golden Globe nominations. I talked to an effervescent Chukwu, who often punctuates her sentences with exclamatory laughter, about those Globes, the long, frustrating road to bring Clemency to the screen, and her experiences as a filmmaker thus far. An edited and condensed transcript of our conversation is below.
JEZEBEL: Was it particularly difficult to get this movie off the ground?
CHINONYE CHUKWU: It was. Everyone said no for like three-and-a-half years. It was a great response to the script, but the subject matter was tough and I was adamant. Alfre was attached two years before production, but even before she was attached, I was unwavering about the protagonist being a black woman. That added to the challenge of getting the movie financed and also, people investing in me as a filmmaker—as a black female filmmaker. There were all of those things, but we eventually found our financing partners through ACE Pictures, based in Malaysia.
When you’re hearing this feedback, how caustic or even racist does it get? Are you hearing directly, “You can’t do this because you’re a black woman?”
No. I think racism is a lot more insidious than that. I wouldn’t even just say racism. I think there’s this bias, this misperception, this ignorance around what is going to sell and what’s going to work. There were questions about the protagonist being a black woman and asking me, “What if the warden was a man of any race?” I think that’s part of media representation. What most people are used to seeing in media is a warden or someone in a position of power being a man. I think that was definitely informing people’s response to me being unwavering about the protagonist being a black woman.
It’s interesting that even in an atmosphere in which #OscarsSoWhite has made demonstrable impact and diversity is a mainstream conversation, you still face these challenges that have clearly always existed. Is that frustrating?
I don’t let it get frustrating. I don’t give people that kind of power. I always say to people that my joy is my greatest form of resistance, and I’m really intentional about tapping into my joy and my own kind of self-worth to combat that kind of stuff that happens. It gets disappointing at times, but we keep pushing. We still bring these injustices to light as well—I think there’s a responsibility in that. But with that, we also have to live.
In your TED Talk, you discuss the self-worth coming from within, and yet you work in an industry that finds you at the creative mercy of so many others. Will you secure the money to make your movie? There’s the worth from within, but then there’s a system where there’s this idea, at least, of worth from without. “What are you worth? I have money—are you worth it?”
Yeah. I think you can be aware of that, but you don’t let it define you, and you don’t let it inform your relationship to yourself. We shouldn’t be foolish in understanding that this is part of this industry and this business, but I am so clear about what roots me and what brings me joy. I love filmmaking, and I hope that people finance my work, and I hope I continue to have opportunities and my access widened. But all I can do is all I can do. And then I let it go. [Bursts into laughter] And live!
Your historic win at Sundance comes in the same year as Mati Diop’s historic win at Cannes. She had mixed feelings about being the first black woman to win at that festival; I wonder how you felt and now feel looking back on it?
I guess the first thing I thought was, wow, I shouldn’t really be the first. Right? I just thought about how many more black women filmmakers need to have access to this platform, need to get distribution and great distribution, and marketing. I thought about the many talented black female filmmakers I know, like, “Man…” We all are worthy of this kind of platform. It took many months later for me to process it and what it meant for other people, how it expanded certain people’s possibilities, other black women, other African women, particularly Nigerian women. I humbly accept that and honor that but also am aware that there are so many systemic problems that need to be dismantled. My film winning does not dismantle the systemic issues.
And as much of a triumph as it is, it strikes me that when a white man wins at Sundance, he’s not a “white male director.” He’s a “director.” These identity labels precede your work in a way, depending on the coverage. Do you have any relationship with that? Do you see it as a burden?
No. I know who I am. I put myself forward as an artist, but I’m also very clear that I’m a black woman. My black female identity is so deeply part of my consciousness and who I am and the way I see and receive the world, so I’m proud of that. But I’m also an artist and I make work that’s not solely defined by my race and gender. I tell stories that feature black women who have full narratives and lives that are not solely defined by their race and gender. I know I do that, and I’m intentional about that. If there are people who refuse to see that, that’s on them [Laughs]
Something that really stuck out to me is that Clemency contains no overt discussions about race—it’s subtextual. I wondered what went into that decision.
I don’t go into monologue myself about being a black woman. [Laughs] Especially when I’m in predominantly white spaces and I’m the person who is in charge. The ways that I live my life as a black woman, it just is, because I’m human. I thought about that with Bernadine. I saw her in my likeness. This is a human being who is navigating some emotional and psychological complexities that go so far beyond her race and gender. That’s really what I thought about. I really wanted to tell a story about the human consequences of mass incarceration, specifically capital punishment. I think that by having the protagonist as a black woman and Anthony as a black man, it doesn’t overburden the narrative with racial dynamics that the audience will bring to it.
You touched on another extraordinary thing about this movie: It’s an understated movie about capital punishment. Was it always your intention to make it that?
I really wanted to tell a story that almost exclusively existed in the gray because that’s life, that’s humanity. People can be a protagonist and an antagonist of the narrative. I didn’t want to make it easy on the audience, and I wanted the audience to continuously grapple throughout the movie.
But with all of that said, it does seem like you have a point of view. I know this movie was the product of extremely thorough research that began as a response to the execution of Troy Davis. Do you think of filmmaking as activism?
I think that filmmaking can be a form of activism, and that activism can come in different ways. My intention with the narrative was not to inundate it with my own personal political opinion. I’m clear where I stand politically, but I also knew that in order for me to get audiences to explore this subject matter, I can’t tell you what to think and what to feel. [But] by so focusing on the humanities that are at stake in this world, you are gonna feel something. I think that can be a form of activism. I think it can also be a form of activism that I was really intentional about making black women human beings. We don’t see enough of that on screen. Even Danielle Brooks’s character, who’s in that one powerful scene, she has this full world and a meaty scene to sink her teeth into. I don’t know if you would call that activism, but I think that’s intentionality.
When you talk about your character’s humanity, are you referring to the fact that Bernadine drinks and is not, perhaps, the Hollywood ideal of what an upstanding woman is?
One of the things I learned through my years of research and volunteering on clemency cases and advocating for people who have been incarcerated is that we cannot define people by their worst possible acts. I really took that and applied that to my directing. I’m not protective of my protagonist. I don’t define anybody in binary terms. I didn’t think about Bernadine as an upstanding human being. I asked myself, “Where is her pain?” Sometimes her pain causes her to do things or act in ways that hurt other people, and sometimes it causes her to help other people. But it all comes from a human place.
How did the advocacy and volunteer work you just mentioned affect you as a person?
My compassion and not defining people by their worst acts have been the greatest lessons I’ve taken from this journey. And of course, on an intellectual level, my understanding of the prison industrial complex has exponentially expanded. To be able to see it up close and see how incredibly difficult it is to get someone out of prison once they’re in corrective control, and to see how these different systems of oppression work so perfectly in concert with each other to disproportionately put certain people in corrective control. Seeing that up close and personal has changed my entire worldview.
Has it given you a sense of hypothetical policy that could help some of the problems here?
The research has shown me the importance of state and local politics and state and local policies. I think almost 90 percent of people who are in prison are incarcerated at the state level. I didn’t know that. I didn’t realize there’s so much change that can happen—even voting for a judge. There are so many counties where judges just stay there for years and years and nobody votes. Judges literally can determine who is in and out of prison, and when they’re released. The power of the prosecutor. The power of the coroner. The power of the sheriff. There’s voting power that can change things. I didn’t know that. I was always thinking of the federal level.
Was there anything you witnessed while doing this work that was particularly moving?
I created a film program in a women’s prison, where I taught incarcerated women to make their own short films. That was a life-changing experience, so enriching and fulfilling. I think probably the most devastating aspect was when I worked with women who were serving life, life without parole, and just thinking about how talented and beautiful they are and how much our society gave up on them. And to know that people beyond the multipurpose room we were in at the time were not able to experience their potential for greatness and that they wouldn’t have the chance to really contribute to the world. That was heartbreaking. I think about that to this day.
One of the movie’s most amazing shots is an unbroken one of Alfre Woodard’s face after a pivotal event. It lasts for minutes. Was it always in the script like that?
The three-and-a-half/four-minute closeup—that came in the middle of production. I knew I wanted a moment in that scene where we were going to experience something in real-time, but I wasn’t quite clear. In working with Alfre, it was clear that was the moment, that was going to be the completion of her arc.
How do you feel right now about your career future?
I feel like I gotta get to work. It’s about the work. I’m interested in longevity. I’m interested in a career, not a moment. I feel like this particular moment has the opportunity of creating possibilities for me that can, as long as I do the work, be the building blocks of a long career.
Did you care about the Golden Globe nominations [which did not include Clemency]?
I did care. You definitely feel it. And then I have to do the internal, soul work to push through and remind myself of my worth, detach from the ego of it, and let it go. I think it’s important to feel the disappointment, but then you have to feel through it. And you keep moving.
How long was that cycle? At what point was it flushed from your system?
Oh, it was like a couple of hours. I had a screening that night! I had other things going on. But I did let myself feel it because I’m human. You feel it, you allow yourself to think all kinds of things, you have your trusted circle of people you call and talk about it [with], and then you have to meditate. Or at least I have to meditate. And then I actually spoke out loud what I’m grateful for. Speaking gratitudes and reminding myself of what’s ahead and what has been, and being thankful for the now really helped me push through.
Given what you’ve seen so far in the film industry, do you think it’s purely a systemic issue that so few black women directors make films?
I think it’s a lot of things. It’s who gets the access and encouragement at school to make work. Making films, it’s a lot of money—to be able to have access to the equipment, to be able to submit to film festivals, and who has access to that kind of stuff? Who gets encouraged in film schools? I’ve been a film professor for over 10 years and I see the disparity in who is quote-unquote “allowed” to make the senior thesis projects, and a lot of times it’s white men. It’s not seeing yourself in film professors, not seeing a lot of yourself on the screen or behind the camera. It all fuels that. It’s people not believing that we can do it, that we want to do it. I think it’s all of those things that work together to create the place that we’re in now.
Are you hopeful?
I am hopeful. I mean, I think to be a black woman in this world, you gotta be hopeful? Right? Yeah, I’m hopeful! [Laughing] I really try to be a change agent as well, and in order to want change and to fight for change, you have to imagine that change is possible.
Clemency is in theaters Friday, December 27.