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.