Writer-director Chinonye Chukwu became part of the Oscar season buzz when her Clemency (Neon) won the Grand Jury Award in the U.S. Dramatic Competition at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. Featuring a compelling performance by Alfre Woodard as prison warden Bernadine Williams, Clemency puts a different perspective on capital punishment. We see that years of carrying out death row executions have taken a profound toll on Williams. An emotional distance, if not outright blockage, has jeopardized her marriage. Memories of a recently botched execution haunt her daily. As she prepares to execute another inmate, Williams is forced to confront the psychological and emotional demons inherent in her job.
Chukwu’s inspiration for the film came in September 2011 when an African-American man, Troy Davis, was executed in a Georgia prison. “Hundreds of thousands around the world protested, including a handful of retired wardens and directors of correction,” recalled Chukwu. “They wrote a letter to the governor pleading for clemency not just on the grounds of the prisoner’s potential innocence but the psychological consequences on a prison staff sanctioned to kill him. So many of us were feeling anger, frustration and sadness that I thought what must it be like for those who had to execute him. What must it mean for your livelihood to be tied to the taking of human life?”
This plunged Chukwu into an odyssey of several years thoroughly researching the prison system, capital punishment, modes of execution, interviewing retired wardens as well as lawyers, corrections officials and incarcerated people. She moved from New York, where there’s no death penalty, to Ohio, where there is. She continued her work as a film teacher at the University of Ohio while researching the subject matter. In Ohio she also volunteered on a total of 14 clemency cases for nonprofit legal organizations, helping with media strategy, shooting video testimonies that played at clemency hearings or that were enclosed with clemency petitions.
“I went into this knowing pretty much nothing. I didn’t know about the prison system, even the difference between jail and prison. I didn’t know who was responsible for carrying out lethal injections. So I sought out answers. I immersed myself emotionally and psychologically in the characters in this world,” related Chukwu whose overall research for the film took four years. “This process was the only way I could enable myself to tell this story as honestly and ethically as possible.”
Her experience not only yielded the crafting of a nuanced, informed script for Clemency, but also her founding a fiction filmmaking curriculum in a women’s prison in Dayton, Ohio. Called Pens to Pictures, the year-long course teaches and empowers incarcerated women to make their own short films, from script to screen. These first-time filmmakers have since been released from prison and Chukwu is working with them to help bring the program to others.
As for bringing Clemency to audiences, Chukwu assembled a team of collaborators, including cinematographer Eric Branco and editor Phyllis Housen. Chukwu already had a working relationship with Branco; the two teamed on The Long Walk, a short film written and directed by Chukwu. “While working on that short, I told Eric about Clemency. He is so talented and we developed a great working relationship. For one, he knows how to light and make black people look good on film. But most importantly, he is a leader on set who embodies a level of joy and positivity even amid the obstacles that are bound to happen, especially on a film as intense and serious as Clemency. He brings light and energy to the set.”
Regarding Housen, Clemency marked the first time Chukwu had worked with the editor. “We got along really well, even managing to laugh during the process,” recalled Chukwu. “I’m not protective of anything in postproduction. It’s all always in service of the film and the story. I don’t hold onto an amazing gorgeous shot. If it doesn’t work, it doesn’t work. Phyllis, I think, was pleasantly surprised by that.”
Chukwu described the years spent on Clemency as “a soul-enriching, transformative experience. My capacity for empathy and compassion, my understanding of justice and mercy have expanded exponentially. This really challenged me in every aspect of my life. It taught me not to define people by their worst possible acts. It helped me to be a better writer and director. Screenwriting is empathy. Directing is empathizing with characters and pulling out their humanity. This work also taught me to have compassion for myself.”
Beyond Clemency and The Long Walk, Chukwu’s body of work includes The Dance Lesson, a regional finalist for the 2010 Student Academy Award, and her debut feature, alaskaLand, which was screened at the Chicago International Film Festival and the New York African Fest. She also recently directed an episode of the Facebook Watch TV/streaming series Sorry for Your Loss. As for what’s next, Chukwu is embarking on the feature A Taste of Power, based on the memoir of Elaine Brown, the first and only female leader of the Black Panther Party.