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Calvin Quallis worked multiple jobs that he hated before founding Scotch Porter, but between childhood memories at his mom’s beauty parlor and his own trips to the barbershop, one thing stuck out. “On some of those worst days, I’d go get a haircut and come out thinking I could take on the world,” Quallis said. “So I’ve always known that grooming and self care had the chance to make you feel better about yourself.” After founding a barbershop called Center Stage Cuts in New Jersey and seeing so many customers with dry, damaged hair in their beards, he began to research ingredients and start making products in his home. In the first 12 months of Scotch Porter – named after his favorite drink (scotch) and his favorite musician (Gregory Porter) – he made more than a million dollars in sales. Since then, Scotch Porter has become one of the most known names for black men’s beard and skin care products.
This year, Scotch Porter is seeing changes. February has seen the launch of a new hair care line, and a new set of ingredients to the beard and skin care products that were already so popular. Plus, the signature brown tubes that hold their products has been changed to new, streamlined blue packaging. Quallis visited the VIBE office to talk about the foundation of the company, 2020’s new leaf, and Scotch Porter’s emphasis on community and lifestyle beyond what their customers put in their dopp kits.
VIBE: Black men have always cared about how we look, but in recent years, we’ve been more comfortable using products for our faces and beards. Where do you think that comfort comes from?
Calvin Quallis: I think it’s a couple of things. One, access to social media. We’re always in front of a camera, always visible. When you’re always visible, you want to look your best. Two, folks are just much more comfortable that were in the past considered female-oriented. So, always being in front of a camera, with selfies and the gist, and wanting to look your best and becoming comfortable using products that were originally toward women.
VIBE: I’m not sure that you were the first black beard company that I heard of, but you were definitely one of the first that I had seen that didn’t just seem like a homemade thing. You were very professional. What kind of strategy went into how you presented the product?
I did work at a design firm. So just seeing designers put together beautiful buildings and different projects, and also in my own personal life, I like nice things. So in terms of the overall aesthetic for the brand, I think it comes somewhat naturally, and then also working at a design firm and seeing how they put together projects, and how they start from scratch, and how they think about design. I think that lended a hand as well.
VIBE: When you were selling this early on, was there any convincing you had to do for the customers?
At that time, I didn’t see many folks talking to black men about beard care or hair care. I didn’t see ads on Instagram or Facebook. So when we launched, it was easy to break through the noise. I noticed at the shop that guys were growing out their beards more, and there weren’t products on the market meant specifically for coily, curly, dry hair. So I seen that as an opportunity, and folks weren’t advertising products like that. It kind of made it slightly easier than it is now, because every other day there’s some new product that’s popped up that someone has created. At that time, it was easier to cut through the clutter because there wasn’t much available for guys with hair textures like us, and they weren’t advertising it if it did exist.
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All the hair care you need is right here. Try the Scotch Porter Superior Hair Collection, to clean, nourish, hydrate and style your hair from start to finish. With key ingredients Kale Protein and Biotin, achieving the healthy hair & scalp you need is waiting for you. 👀 no further... add this collection to your cart. #MensGrooming #ScotchPorter
VIBE: Tell me about the new hair products you’re launching.
We’re watching new reformulated hair care products, along with reformulated beard and skincare products. Our new hair care line includes five products: our Hydrating Hair Wash, Nourish And Repair Hair Conditioner, Smoothing Hair Balm, Smooth & Shine Hair Serum, and our Leave-In Conditioner. All of these hair care products, including our beard and skincare products, are multifunctional, so they do more than just one thing. Our hair balm and hair wash don’t only cleanse and condition, but also include some flake reduction actives, and healthy hair and scalp botanicals that help with things like dandruff, and it also helps prevent hair thinning.
VIBE: I’ve been using Scotch Porter for so long that I always associate the image of the brown containers. What made you decide to change up the look?
I’ve noticed for a while, the space is just becoming increasingly competitive. I’ve known for about a year that we needed to reinvent ourselves, and to reup. Make better products, make them more affordable – we’ve been able to reduce the price point on all our products by about 25 percent. Also, pull out things from our products. There’s no BHTs, there’s no parabins, no formaldehyde donors. We’ve gotten rid of phenoxyethanol, and we’ve included really interesting ingredient stories. This, again, is all based on seeing how the landscape has gotten increasingly competitive.
VIBE: I wanted to dig into that a little bit. You were one of the first in the space. What do you think is the balance between sticking with what you know, vs. knowing when you need to change?
Part of it is insight. You’ve got to pay attention to what’s going on around you, with a focus on the consumer. Understand what’s going on in the marketplace, but also thinking how we can better serve the customer by delivering even better products. The products that we’ve reformulated are even better than we’ve had before. Thinking of price points and making products more accessible. Then, just giving folks more value and pulling out interesting ingredients that help with some of the issues that men have as it relates to grooming.
VIBE: One of my favorite parts of Scotch Porter is the emphasis on lifestyle and community. Last year, I went to the pop up shop you had, and I was impressed – not only did you have the products at a discount, but you also had the panel for black men to congregate. You also have the email newsletter, and the print manual; in the former, you recently told customers to go to the doctor. Also, each purchase comes with the NakedWines voucher. It just feels like there’s an intention to make black men enjoy each other and love themselves.
It stems from our mission. Our mission from day one has always been to help men feel their best and to live their most fulfilled lives. These touchpoints are just expressions of that. Even as I think about wellness – over the last 14 months or so, I’ve lost 60 pounds. I’ve been getting better at looking at what I’m putting in my body, and what’s important, and these are the things I need to do if I want to be around longer. I’m still on my journey; I ain’t there yet. But we’ve always been talking about how internal and external wellness are a big part of helping guys to feel their best. Some of the articles you see, or the pop-up shop where we have a discussion around mental health, and even the articles on going to the doctor. It’s a holistic approach to helping men feel their best. For us, it’s never been about just giving you the next goop to put in your beard, and that’s all that you need to look and feel your best. It’s internal and external.
VIBE: The manual and the newsletter have these important messages, but it doesn’t feel like they’re talking down to you. It just feels like one of my homies emailing me about it.
Because that’s the only way you’re going to be able to digest it. And again, I’m on my own journey. I’m not there yet. I’m not rocking a six-pack. And it’s not necessarily about that. Each and every day, what can you be doing to make your life better? For us, that’s what it’s about, and that’s the conversation that we have with guys. It’s not about us being on a soapbox pretending we have it all figured out.
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It’s official! We’re proud to share that #ScotchPorter is now available at select @Target retail locations across the nation. (CLICK LINK IN BIO FOR STORE LOCATOR) • • We’re pumped about our retail expansion as it provides us with the opportunity to bring our #MULTIPurpose better-for-you Beard and Face care products straight to your local #Target store. • • When it comes to accessing products that are non-toxic and healthier for you, you deserve options that won’t break the bank. With key ingredients in our Beard and Face collections including Biotin and Pomegranate Enzymes, our products have you covered. • • Thanks for riding with us, we’re just getting started!☄️ #MensGrooming #TellAFriend
VIBE: Within the past couple of years, Bevel sold their products in Target and they were later acquired by Procter & Gamble. Do you have any plans to expand in terms of selling products outside of the website?
On February 9, we launch in about a third of the Target doors with our beard care and skin care products. We’re super excited about that. Target has launched a campaign, and I’m included in the launch for their black history month Black Beyond Measure campaign, where they’re highlighting black founders and their success stories. Excited to be a part of that and share my journey, both with potential entrepreneurs and regular customers.
VIBE: Anything else about Scotch Porter that people should know?
One of the things that’s always been important to me is providing access, opportunity and employment to people that look like us. It’s really intentional. I’d say about 95 to 98 percent of the folks that work with us look like me and you. We provide opportunity, and we provide what I consider great pay. I remember when I was working for somebody else, feeling like I had to fight to climb the career ladder, the limitations that were put on me had nothing to do with my skill set. When I was starting Scotch Porter, I made it very important to hire people who look like us and give them an opportunity to climb up.
Love has neurological effects similar to those of cocaine. That’s what researchers from Syracuse University discovered in a study called "The Neuroimaging of Love.” According to science, falling in love triggers the same feeling of ecstasy experienced by people when they consume the drug.
What’s more, the withdrawal of love—or the emotional mourning that transpires after a serious breakup, for instance—can result in what is called Broken Heart Syndrome, also known as stress-induced cardiomyopathy. The chest pain, characterized as sudden and intense, can rear its ugly head no matter how healthy one might be.
So when one of the biggest reggaeton singers to ever walk the planet tells me he resorted to the use of narcotics after an unexpected breakup during his formative years, I was all but flabbergasted. A 15-year-old Nick "Nicky Jam" Rivera Caminero had slipped into subterranean levels of depression in the face of cyclical family trauma, maternal abandonment and, ultimately, adolescent heartache.
“That’s when I touched cocaine for the first time,” and Nicky experienced a coke-induced euphoria that he spent the following 15 years trying to reproduce. Not long after recording his first album in 1994, ...Distinto A Los Demás, Nicky set on a path of years under the devilish grips of chronic addiction that saw him rise to teen fame in Puerto Rico and practically fade into oblivion by his mid-20s.
A considerably brief, yet successful stint as one-half of Los Cangris with reggaeton compatriot Daddy Yankee during the late 90s served as a precursor to Nicky’s solo career in the early 2000s. After the two parted ways professionally, Nicky went on to release a pair of studio albums, Haciendo Escante and Vida Escante between 2001 and 2004. By 2010, Nicky—now a struggling addict and self-described embarrassment of the Latin Caribbean music industry—relocated to Medellín, Colombia.
It was there in one of the most criminally notorious Latin American cities where Nicky Jam was able to produce a cadre of concerts and hit singles— “Voy A Beber,” “Tu Primera Vez,” and “Juegos Prohibidos,” to name a few—that helped revive his once-dwindling career. A city he feels indebted to for nurturing him when he most needed it, Medellín would also go on to backdrop the near overdose that almost took Nicky’s life before he made the radical (and perilous) decision of going clean.
In 2015, Nicky earned his first Latin Grammy Award in the category of Best Urban Performance with Enrique Iglesias for “El Perdón.” By 2017, Nicky had effectively kicked a deadly habit, resurrected his career, and from the ashes emerged with Fénix, an award-winning and Latin Grammy-nominated studio album that gathered collaborations featuring everyone from Sean Paul and J Balvin to El Alfa and Kid Ink.
Lead singles “El Amante” and “Hasta el Amanecer” would go on to receive their respective billions in views on YouTube, while a spot on Jaden Smith’s “Icon (Remix)” sparked the beginning of a collaborative relationship with the rapper’s father and Hollywood veteran, Will Smith. The Lawrence, Massachusetts born singer was tapped to play the official 2018 FIFA World Cup anthem, “Live it Up,” featuring Big Willie himself and Albanian singer-songwriter Era Istrefi.
In the same year, amid an afrobeat wave, Nicky released “X” with J Balvin, under Sony Music Latin. The song would go on to rule Billboard’s Latin Pop Airplay charts and, as of today, its accompanying music video has accumulated nearly 1.8 billion views on YouTube. In the time “X” took to climb the charts and make a home on the global dance floor, Nicky conjured thoughts with Will about possibly starring in Bad Boys For Life, the third installment of the classic movie franchise.
On January 17, 2020, Nicky then made a memorable return to the big screen alongside Will and on-screen partner-in-crime Martin Lawrence for the big-budget film. Playing one of the villains, Zway-Lo, Nicky’s dedication to his role went as far as him learning to perform a majority of his own stunts. Bad Boys For Life topped the box office for three straight weekends, raking in approximately $168 million in revenue and a total of $338 million worldwide. In the thick of it all, the father of four managed to drop a seventh studio album, Íntimo, and go on a U.S. tour to promote it.
To call Nicky’s story a comeback would be an understatement. Reggaeton’s reigning cupid is a dissertation on transnational redemption and personal resilience, despite falling victim to the social, psychological, physiological, and financial ramifications of inherited drug abuse.
On March 5, 2020, Nicky Jam will enjoy the homecoming of a lifetime, as he's honored with the Special Achievement Award at this year’s Premios Tu Música Urbano at the renowned José Miguel Agrelot Coliseum in Puerto Rico. His former Los Cangris partner Daddy Yankee is the only other recipient to have taken home the same accolade. The greater accolade will be receiving his honor in the company of the new leading lady in his life.
Love is, indeed, in the air.
But no amount of emotional ecstasy was going to see Nicky through to the other side; it was the deliberate act of love that would save him. “I knew I had to break these chains,” he says. “To fix my life and my family.”
Bring me to the moment that made you feel you needed drugs.
I think drugs sometimes make you think it can be the fix of a lot of your problems. The problem with drugs is that you go to drugs because in your mind you don't care anymore about dealing with the troubles that you have. You need something to make you feel good.
What were you feeling bad about?
I lost my mom. My mom wasn't with me. In my mind, I was abandoned by her since I was eight-years-old. Then I had a close girlfriend who left me when I was 15 years old. That’s when I touched cocaine for the first time. ‘Cause in my mentality, nobody was stable in my life. Nobody was sticking around. I felt a lot of betrayal from my own mom and from the girl I loved.
I thought, “Why am I going to take care of myself? My dad didn’t handle his drug problems. My mom did drugs too, so why not me?" I mean, I had drugs all around me, and the foundation of everything is your home. It's your family.
The absence of someone you loved, is that at the root of your past drug abuse?
What was the moment you knew you had to stop and that your life needed radical change?
Years and years after the fact. Imagine, I started at 15 years old. So it was about 15 years later around the time I was 30. I said I gotta break these chains. I almost died from an overdose. I knew I had to break these chains. My mom was doing drugs, my dad struggled with drugs—I gotta break these chains! I needed to fix my life and my family. And that's what I did.
What were the key decisions you had to make in order for you to be successful in your sobriety?
Every pain that I had while I was trying to get clean made me not want to come back to this ever again. When you go cold and try to break drugs, you start to get back pains and bone pains and it's cold all the time. Every time I was going through that process I thought, “This is me breaking this evil, this curse. Am I really going back to this curse?” I had to go through it.
Anything that you have to suffer physically for in that way is the only red flag you need. That right there was letting me know, bro, I was a slave to drugs. I didn't want to be one anymore, so I said I'm not going back to that again. I want to live like normal people. I don't want to work so I can maintain an addiction. I'm seeing that I haven't even been successful enough just because I've been stuck in this cycle. I didn’t want the story of my family and my life to be drugs. I didn’t want to die that way.
One of my favorite songs by Kendrick Lamar is called “i.” That song let us know he was someone who battled with suicidal thoughts and urges. I like to think it’s a love song that he dedicated to himself and others like him. The song is about coming to this radical understanding that despite what the world has to say about you and where you come from, you are enough and worthy of all the good things life has to offer. Talk a little bit about your relationship with self when you were on drugs.
I felt like s**t. I felt like my soul was dead. I didn't care about nothing. It got to a point where I loved living that life, that miserable life and that darkness. I enjoyed hanging around people that lived that same life as well. I enjoyed not having responsibility. I enjoyed just hiding away from everything. You know, one of the big problems of leaving drugs is not just leaving drugs. It’s going back to the reality of what made you turn to drugs in the first place. All those skeletons that you have in the closet. That was my problem.
What else don’t people get about drug addiction?
Another thing people don't know about drugs is that you are a slave to your first high. That first high is always the best high in the world. You're always looking for that same reaction and you never find it. You find a lot of good ones, but never like that first one. You could say that is love at first sight. The [high] is like love at first sight. This is what you feel in a moment where you fall in love or something like that. It’s the only thing similar to having something so good in your life. But it’s not good. Not good at all.
In another interview, you talked about the first time you saw people dancing reggae. It was at one of your parents’ house parties, I believe. You also compared that moment to love at first sight. What was it about reggae that immediately caught your attention?
It was just the Caribbean, you know? In the Caribbean you will see people dancing reggae like normal, but in the States you didn’t really see that. Now, yes, but back in the 80s? It was just MC Hammer, Vanilla Ice, A Tribe Called Quest. People danced to hip-hop, obviously, but not so together. It wasn't really that grinding present. So when I saw people dancing reggae like that in Puerto Rico, and how sexy it was with that Caribbean vibe…
Is that what sparked your love for music?
Yes and no. My love for music began really when I saw the “Thriller” video by Michael Jackson. I remember seeing the premiere and I said I want to do this. I knew automatically when I saw Michael Jackson do “Thriller” as a little kid that I wanted people to fall in love with my music.
What other artists or genres did you consume that helped mold you into the artist you are today? Because you're lauded for bringing romance or the romantic flair to reggaeton.
Yeah, melody wise.
Are you a hopeless romantic?
I'm romantic, for sure, but it's also that I have a beautiful voice. My voice happens to work for that kind of material. So it's not only about my personality; I have a voice that helps create that type of music. What I did was take advantage of that.
But to answer your question, you can say a lot of music made me who I am. I'm talking about Prince, JAY-Z, Jenni Rivera. I’m talking about country and rock and so much other music that made Nicky Jam. I love that soul—that feeling. That’s what I’ve always been about.
Who taught you how to love?
Who taught me how to love?
My kids taught me how to love. They’ve shown me what love really is. Colombia, believe it or not, showed me how to love. Because when I most needed love, they gave it to me. And God taught me love. Por encima de todo, God. God gave me that second opportunity in life where I really recognized that I was loved. I had my doubts.
What is your relationship with God?
God is everything. My respect to God is everything. I’m probably not the best church person in the world, but my connection with God is crazy. He knows that I have conversations with him. We can probably agree that I should maybe pray a little more. [Laughs] I get distracted a little bit because I got A.D.D., you know what I'm saying? But I love God.
You lit up when you mentioned your kids earlier. Who are they?
I have four kids. One is 18 years old and her name is Yarimar. My 17-year-old is Alissa. The 16-year-old is Luciana and my boy, Joe, is the youngest. He's 14 years old.
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“La Promesa (La Calle)” is a standout cut for me off the new album. Considering some of the things you’re saying here, what was the writing process like?
That's the kind of song I wanted a lot of people to relate to. It’s saying I’m not giving up and I'm just going to do this. My situation is music, but somebody else can want to be a lawyer. Someone might want to be a journalist, a firefighter or a cop, who knows. But you’re saying, “I’m doing this.” I told my mom I'm not gonna stop. I'm gonna work my ass off and I'm gonna do what I'm gonna do so I don’t go back to that dark place. A lot of people hate me, but I see them. I see through them and I keep pushing anyway. I’m not stopping for nobody. That's the type of song that has a good vibe, but carries a strong message.
Would you say music helped save you?
Did music save me? Let me see, ‘cause I know a lot of people say it just to say it, right?
Well, I gotta say that music did save me because it's really the only thing I had. I didn’t graduate from college, you know? I knew I had a voice and I knew I had the power to make people listen to me. So obviously music gave me hope and it gave me faith. It also made me want to be somebody and then it made me believe I was actually going to be somebody.
Music, then, also gifted you a world of people who love you, irrespective of your past or shortcomings.
It did. It gave me a platform, it gave me faith, and it gave me people that love me. Music saved me and my family, to be honest. Today my family lives good because of the music. Today my sister got her house because of the music. My mom got a home because of the music. My dad has his house because of the music. My kids got their college funds because of the music. Music saved the lives of my whole family.
What are your fears?
My fear today is not being with my kids when they need me. My fear today is that one of my kids will go through drugs. Because I know today the youth is crazy. My fear is not seeing my grandkids, stuff like that. I'm not saying I'm scared for my life. I'm saying that those are the things that I want to be here for. I want to make sure that I live a healthy life so I can be around for all of that.
You say that you work like you're going to lose everything at any given moment. Do you also love that way?
Of course. I try to give love to everybody that's next to me in the best way I know how. I try to share my life with them in a way that makes them feel like they have everything. That’s just how I operate. I focus on giving love and I focus on ensuring that [whoever is in my life] can walk away knowing that Nicky is a good guy. That I loved them and respected them. I'm the type of guy, I know when I go with God and I'm no longer on this earth, people gonna say, “I miss Nicky.” And that's when you know you made your legacy. When you make people miss you, you make people want to be with you. You make people want to say good things about you. That’s a legacy.
What’s your love language? How do you express your love to someone you care about?
I think the way I show love is by doing whatever it is I need to for my girl or for anybody that I love. You know what I'm saying? “What do you need?” I don't act like I'm this kind of guy, or that I can't do certain things. I don't have any limits when it's about showing love. It’s in the details, the stupid stuff. You want something? I’ll go get it for you. You want coffee? You hungry? You want me to get you anything? I got you.
You like to serve.
I definitely serve. I’m a server. It’s funny ‘cause I know I might not look like it, but that's who I am. That's how I show my love. And I think it's a good way to show it, ‘cause you know it when it’s gone.
And you brought your partner with you. How did you meet her?
I was doing a video called “Atrevete.” I called her agency and I thought she was the perfect girl for the video. It was just love at first sight. [Laughs] I just saw her come in the restaurant and I said, “Wow, that's a beautiful girl right there.” Then we started talking and it was just instant.
I had never seen eyes like that before. I just went crazy. Yeah, there's a lot of blue eyes, but something about her eyes drove me crazy. We were flirting around and everybody started to watch, and we just didn't care that people were there. We were just at it and it didn’t matter who was in the room. The video was about us. About me trying to win her over, and it worked. [Laughs]
Do you see a life with her?
Yeah. You also have to understand my background, where I come from and how I lost so many people in life. So my mind doesn’t necessarily… I try not to really think about it like that. I just try my best to enjoy [the present].
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My goofball ❤️
Is that what your “Life” tattoo is about?
It’s the only thing that matters, life and living it to your fullest. The word is a beautiful word. I don't think there's a more beautiful word. Other than God, maybe.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Photographer: Jason Chandler, Finalis Valdez
Art Designer: Nicole Tereza
Videographers: Dexterity Productions
Wardrobe Stylists: Norma Castro
It pays to take note of films that encourage viewers to rethink how much space empathy and understanding take up in one’s conscience—and how to continue to allow more of both in. CLEMENCY, Chinonye Chukwu’s award-winning and thought-provoking film, explores those themes through the lens of capital punishment.
CLEMENCY follows Bernadine Williams (Alfre Woodard), a prison warden, whose livelihood of carrying out death row executions have taken a toll on her marriage and mental health. Bogged down with flashbacks of a recently botched execution that occurred under her watch, she must face the psychological and emotional demons her job manifests. This reckoning eventually connects her to Anthony Woods (Aldis Hodge)—another inmate she prepares to execute.
Each act in the film is a layer unfolding the intricate complexities of the death penalty—from how it impacts those who implement such acts as their day-to-day, to their community, the victims, the inmates’ advocates, and their own families. CLEMENCY, while leaving you speechless, shows how much more there is to learn about this form of punishment and poses the question of whether it’s even worth it—given the consequences all parties involved suffer over time.
According to the Death Penalty Information Center (DPIC), 29 states in America still uphold the death penalty with over 1,500 executions performed since 1976. Of those executions, about a third of the deceased defendants were Black. And just like the case of Anthony Woods in the film, many inmates are wrongfully convicted of the death penalty, where very few are able to get their cases exonerated.
Clemency is the process that defendants pursue, where a governor or member of the executive branch of government can reduce a defendant’s sentence or grant a pardon. This process is especially important for those who’ve been wrongfully convicted and have had their appeals denied. Though rare, clemency gives the possibility that an inmate’s life will be pardoned.
Chukwu says that Troy Davis’ clemency case is what sparked her to develop this film. Davis was executed on Sept. 21, 2011, where hundreds of thousands of people around the world protested against it, including a handful of retired wardens and directors of corrections. “They were urging for clemency, not just on the grounds of Troy’s potential innocence, but they spoke to the emotional and psychological consequences they knew, from first-hand experience, killing Troy would have on the prison staff sanctioned to do so,” she explains. “The morning after he was executed, I was really obsessed with the question, ‘What must it be like for your livelihood to be tied to taking a human life?’”
From there, the director embarked on a four-year journey of researching for CLEMENCY. She did her due diligence, speaking and interviewing wardens, corrections officers, death row lawyers, lieutenants and a director of corrections about their experiences working in prisons and death row facilities. She touched base with men currently on death row, including a man who was exonerated from death row after being wrongfully incarcerated for 28 years. Chukwu also spent time volunteering for nonprofit legal organizations on 14 different clemency cases for women who are serving life sentences as well as initiated a writing program in prisons called Pens to Pictures. Such a deep dive helped inform how humanity is tied to incarceration.
Putting in the preliminary work and paying attention to details the untrained eye would gloss over in this world was evident in CLEMENCY. Chukwu was intentional on drawing parallels between Bernadine and Anthony with her use of color theory, isolation and evoking emotion. “I wanted to show how anyone is connected,” Chukwu says. “They’re both tied to this ecosystem of incarceration—they’re both impacted in some way and so I really wanted to make that clearer as the narrative progresses.”
For Hodge, knowing how much preparation Chukwu did inspired him to do his homework as well. Alongside producer Bronwyn Cornelius, Hodge visited San Quentin Prison with the intent of speaking with men currently serving on death row. “I was only able to talk to the brothers serving life sentences—the warden wouldn’t allow us to speak with the death row inmates,” Hodge says. “How they were treated, their increased sense of isolation from the other inmates was very polarizing—and informative. It shaped my idea for my character’s world. From there, I went into who I thought I wanted my character to represent to the audience, which was hope.”
The actor saw playing Anthony as an opportunity to show people a man beyond his situation, to show empathy in human form. “I wanted the audience to be able to see a man and see something familiar before judging him based off of his situation,” he explains. “I didn’t want them to see a criminal. As it goes, when it comes to black and brown people in this country, I think we are disproportionately targeted, especially by the prison system and the judicial system, because we are still seen as less than human.”
Hodge also hopes CLEMENCY is a conversation starter that helps push the conversation of how American society is pacified by the idea of taking lives under the guise of justice. “What I keep asking and repeating to myself is that as a society, do we have the right to take the lives of those who have taken life? Would that not make us also the same kind of monster? And granted, there are people who do some heinous things and yes there are a lot of folks that need to be put in jail, but jail in the sense of actual rehabilitation—I’m not sure I’ve seen it,” he says.
CLEMENCY is Chukwu’s offering to the viewer, where she hopes they see the humanity of people who are incarcerated while narrowing the gap between those who think they’re not directly impacted by incarceration and those who are behind prison walls. Even when embarking on challenging work that intersects social justice and film, one would wonder how this impacts a director and actor personally. Chukwu notes that she’s still processing it for herself, tapping into being intentional about finding and embracing joy and detaching from ego; utilizing helpful tools like meditation and therapy.
“It was hard to make this film emotionally and psychologically,” she shares. “There were definitely moments where I had to compartmentalize because I had a job to do—and as the leader of this ship, I can’t can’t break down every time I want to. But I stuffed it in and saved it for later. I knew when I needed to let myself cry and really let myself feel all the things and then feel through it.”
Hodge stresses that he was able to separate the two, as he does not carry his character home when working on projects, otherwise he would lose himself in the craft. “I have to be able to step out of it and be able to observe and refine what needs to be worked on,” he says. “My ambition is to increasingly improve every single take; to show this person I’ve built up for the audience to see. I’m also quite ambitious about showing the world what this rawness is—so the harder it is, the more excited I get. Oddly enough, with all those crazy scenes [in CLEMENCY], I was just actually really excited about shooting them.”
The end of 2019 was the time the world could finally see why CLEMENCY was awarded the Grand Jury Prize for the U.S. Dramatic competition at Sundance Film Festival—making Chukwu, who also wrote the film in addition to directing it, the first Black woman to win the award at the festival. This accomplishment was the launchpad she needed to expand the reach of the film but revealed yet another challenge for her to navigate as the film makes its theatrical runs nationwide.
“I realized that before Sundance I was comfortable in the struggle. I was comfortable climbing up the hill and I realized that I haven’t allowed myself to enjoy the view,” she says. “I think the struggle this year for me was allowing myself to thrive and really align. I’ve been working on other projects and writing. I needed to stop and have compassion for myself and enjoy and say to myself, ‘You did that.’ I’ve been doing the work spiritually to allow myself to thrive and enjoy it and not think that means I’m not doing the work. As a black woman especially, it’s an act of resistance to rest. We work, but we’ve got to rest. And it’s alright.”
As the 92nd Academy Awards approaches, Chukwu was one of the many women and filmmakers of color who were snubbed despite releasing critically-acclaimed bodies of work in 2019. Following her reaction to the lack of acknowledgment after the nominees were announced in January, it’s evident she still taps into joy in the face of willful ignorance.
“I speak on joy because in a world that is more comfortable with my oppression than my empowerment as a black woman, owning my joy is one of my greatest tools of power,” she says in a tweet. “To the many artists who have been overlooked and undervalued, I see you—I see US—and we are glorious!”
CLEMENCY is still playing in select cities. You can see if it’s available for viewing near you here.