“You wanna believe there’s good guys and bad guys, and I’m one of the bad guys. But I give these men respect.”
One of cinema’s greatest actors – Alfre Woodard – reaffirms her virtuosity in one of the last scenes in the powerful drama “Clemency” (2019). The camera stays on a close up of her face for an uninterrupted four minutes – as we watch her character go through a silent meltdown. It’s all in her eyes – and we witness the equivalent of an iceberg crumbling down. Everything that until that point that has kept her together is disintegrating. The actress is channeling something volcanic inside of her. You’re left astounded.
The film itself is lacerating – it should have gotten more recognition when it was released and Woodard’s performance should have been honored. I blame the subject matter – a prison warden grappling with the emotional demands of the execution system. Two years after its release, the film has only grown in importance – and it makes for a compelling discovery for serious cinephiles. I should also point out that it is keenly written and directed by Chinonye Chukwu – the first black woman to win Sundance Film Festival’s Grand Jury Prize – a tribute previously bestowed to filmmakers including Ryan Coogler, Debra Granik and Damien Chazelle amongst others.
There’s been death-row dramas before — “The Green Mile” (1999) and “Dead Man Walking” (1995) — but we’ve never experienced a film from the point of view of the people whose job it is to carry out capital punishment. Bernadine Williams is an American prison warden. She’s precise, detail oriented and tough. Perhaps she has to be extra tough because she’s a woman, and she’s African American. She’s powerless to commute sentences, for that is up to the legal system and the governor. Her job is to do the unpleasant work. “I have to maintain order and safety in this prison,” she says. “I got over a thousand bodies that I have to insure are safe and accounted for.” Her mettle is established from the opening moments when we see her forcefully walking directly towards the camera. She is the one who gives the go ahead for the act to begin. She draws the curtain that separates the witness and the press from the prisoner’s last minutes. She is responsible for bringing a microphone to the gurney and requesting any last words – and the one who calls out the time of death. She stands in the center – making sure everything is done efficiently.
While presiding over her 12th state-sanctioned killing, she watches as an inept paramedic botches the procedure – unable to find the proper vein. The prisoner suffers – and this action triggers a crack in the psychological armor that she’s built to protect herself. Whatever blinds that she had drawn are now lifted. She is able to fully see the cruelty of what she has been entrusted to do.
After work, she lingers at the local bar drinking too much and engaging in a questionable relationship with her second in command at the jail. At home her marriage is falling apart. “I wanna get back to where we were, Bernadine!“ her husband Jonathan pleads with her on their anniversary. He urges her to quit her job for he feels he’s “living with an empty shell of a wife.” He is a high school teacher – and he poignantly reads Ralph Ellison to his students, “I am an invisible man. I am a man of substance, of flesh and bone, fiber and liquids – and I might even be said to possess a mind. I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me.”
Things are complicated by the impending 13th procedure. She has started to develop a sympathy towards Anthony who will soon be executed and claims innocence. Aldis Hodge is memorable in this role. Bernardine who — up until this point — has remained professional and procedural about her day to day, starts to grapple with the weight of it all.
Director Chukwu has a strong way of configuring objects in the frame to convey Bernardine’s internal struggle. The austerity of the prison seems to be consuming her soul. She’s a powerful and commanding figure at the beginning and towards the end the cabinets behind her and her desk seem to bury her physically. This meditation on the impact of the death penalty in society at large is imperative.
Bernardine: “I want us to be whole again.”
Available to stream on Hulu and to rent on Amazon Prime, Google Play, iTunes, YouTube, FandangoNOW, Vudu, Microsoft, Redbox, DIRECTV and FlixFling.
Written and Directed by Chinonye Chukwu
Starring Alfre Woodard, Richard Schiff, Danielle Brooks, Michael O’Neill, Richard Gunn, Wendell Pierce and Aldis Hodge
Writer and Director Chinonye Chukwu on Bringing “Clemency” to the Screen
“It wasn’t until shooting the film that I realized how much of myself personally and emotionally informed this film,” Chukwu said during an interview with IndieWire this spring. “It took three and a half years to get the financing. My producer Bronwyn Cornelius and I were just pushing and pushing [to get it made], so you have this kind of like full-steam ahead attitude [happening]. I’m really good, like really good, at emotionally compartmentalizing and suppressing and focusing … and then you get the funding.” Once Chukwu had the financing for her passion project in place, it was time to actually make the damn thing. For a little while, at least, that momentum kept even Chukwu from feeling the full emotional weight of her film. “We’re like, ‘All right, we got this movie to make! We got to do it. We got to do it,’” she said. “Day five on set, the scene that comes after the moment where Bernadine breaks down the [execution] protocol, I started sobbing at the monitor. What the hell is happening? In that moment, I realized I was not allowing myself to feel, and I wasn’t giving space to my own humanity through this process. In some ways, by this emotional suppression, I was kind of cutting off my own humanity. I realized how much of myself was in this.” For Chukwu, the process of making “Clemency” started in 2011, when Troy Davis was executed by the state of Georgia. “Hundreds of thousands of people around the world were protesting against his execution, including several retired wardens,” Chukwu remembered. “Leading up to his execution, the organizing, the activism around it really sparked a kind of consciousness in me around mass incarceration and capital punishment in a way that I just didn’t have that consciousness before. The morning after he was executed, I was feeling all kinds of emotions. But I was like, if we’re all navigating frustration and anger and sadness, what must it be like for the people who had to physically kill him? What is it like for your livelihood to be tied to the taking of human life?”
By 2013, the filmmaker was deep into an intense research process, including talking to a variety of key subjects, like “retired wardens and directors of corrections, and people who’ve been incarcerated, people who are incarcerated, lawyers, and chaplains, and activists, and organizers.” Chukwu also volunteered on her first clemency case, working on the media campaign for Tyra Patterson, who spent over 20 years in prison for a murder she always maintained she did not commit. (Patterson was released early on Christmas Day 2017.) “I spent a lot of time talking with Tyra, and talking with other women who were incarcerated at Dayton Correctional Institution, and that really transformed me,” Chukwu said. “It expanded my capacity for empathy and compassion, and to not define people by their worst possible acts. I’ve been a college professor for over 10 years, and I’ve been helping students tell their stories, so [after] visiting Tyra and talking to other women in the prison who were incarcerated there, I thought me helping people tell their stories shouldn’t be confined to the college classroom.” Chukwu created a film program in the women’s prison in Dayton where she taught incarcerated women how to make their own short films and produce script-to-screen. That wasn’t part of her research for what would become “Clemency,” but, as Chukwu explained, it was all part of the same passion to help people who are incarcerated. Chukwu worked on more than a dozen other clemency cases for women who were serving life sentences after defending themselves against their abusers.
“That opened me up to talking to more and more people,” she said. “A lot of the wardens and people who were incarcerated, some people who are on death row, read my script, and ripped it apart, and gave me notes, and were meticulous about it for accuracy, and authenticity, and language. All of that really informed me, but it really transformed me in my advocacy and my activism was really developed and deepened through this process.” Chukwu’s activism and research eventually bred “Clemency,” a radically empathetic and deeply emotional look at life inside death row. And, unlike other films of its ilk, like “The Green Mile” or “Dead Man Walking,” it’s told through the typically underseen perspective of a black female warden. For Chukwu, there was no other way she could tell the story. “I just always knew she was going to be a black woman. I mean, there was no other thought,” Chukwu said. “I think that if the warden was a white man, the director wouldn’t explain that choice. It’s normalized. For me, this black female warden is normal, but I think it does add layers and complications that can be really powerful.” It certainly doesn’t hurt that said warden, Bernadine Williams, is played by no less than Oscar nominee Alfre Woodard. The actress was attached to the role two years before Chukwu even entered pre-production. “I mean, she’s Alfre Woodard. She could emote so much with just her eyes,” Chukwu said. “That was necessary for this role, and it was such an exciting honor to be able to give her space to fully tap into her craft. It was exciting to witness her brilliance everyday on set. She gives a masterclass in acting. It was exciting to be able to just sit and talk about emotional arcs and what’s going on, and then she just executes.”
Writer/Director Chinonye Chukwu on The Making of “Clemency”
“I knew that I wanted the audiences to kind of jump into the middle of it while it’s happening. I didn’t want to explain too much. I didn’t want to set up too much,” she said. “I wanted the audiences to piece together as the story goes along. I didn’t want to make it easy at all for the audiences, and for them to just really observe, and to feel, and to sense. The other reason is Anthony. We don’t really know much about his case, and that was 100% intentional. I don’t want this to be about, did he do it or not? I don’t want this to be about litigation. This is about feeling the humanities of these people. Even if we don’t know all the facts and details of their lives, you cannot deny that they are human. That was really my intention in the storytelling.” Secure in her intentions, Chukwu stayed open to revisions. That included plenty of hard ones. “The one moment of revision that I will always remember, that was so harrowing, was the scene where Bernadine is telling Anthony the protocol, the process,” she said. “I had a version of that that had language like ‘when you die’ and words like ‘kill’ and things like that, and there was one warden who said, ‘No, we don’t say “die.” We don’t personalize. It’s “when the procedure is complete,” you don’t say “you.” You have to depersonalize it, and it is about the procedure.’ That was so harrowing, so harrowing.” Years of research and a well of personal passion didn’t bolster the filmmaker’s ego; they appear to have only made her more receptive to the possibilities of the process, and how necessary it was to include others. “Those kinds of revisions and corrections were happening throughout the revision process, but also through pre-production, as well,” Chukwu said. “I had some wardens on speed dial throughout pre-production, throughout production. We flew in a former warden on set who did the blocking for the execution scenes of actors. I was really committed to getting this as authentic as possible, but also involving the very community of people who I was representing as much as possible.” (indiewire.com)
Aldis Hodge on “Clemency”
“My first couple of conversations with Chinonye were really about learning how she was inspired and why she was inspired to tell this story. That set up the framework for how I was able to view what it was we were about to get into. She told me about her extensive work within the prison system, and that’s how I knew I was dealing with somebody who’s really dedicated. Not only did she write a brilliant script, but it came from a place of real passion for the potential of what it had to say and the effect of what the art was. So, after you get that, you know that you’re not dealing with somebody who is trying to take the subject matter lightly or frivolously. When you’re dealing with somebody who’s deeply connected to the purpose of it, then you can’t help but trust, at that point. Really, it just comes down to trust. Everything we do in this business is risk and trust. You can be with the biggest studio on the biggest budge film, and it can still turn out to be something that is not entirely the greatest. And you can have two dollars and some really dedicated people, and make the greatest masterpiece, ever. It depends on where people’s hearts are. That supplements and roots your trust and faith in it. So, for me, it was coming to understand that Chinonye was super dedicated because she was experienced and educated. It’s a different value that you add. And then, just look at the casting. At first, I had only heard that Alfre Woodard was on it and I was like, “It’s Alfre Woodard, so yes. If you want me to play an extra, all right. I’m with you.” But then, after that, you hear about Wendell Pierce, Richard Schiff, and Danielle Brooks, and you’re like, “All of these major talents are coming to the same place for the same reason. There’s gotta be something special here.” There were so many people that really have brilliant bodies of work and are fantastic actors, and they’re coming to this project for a reason. I just wanted to be a part of that reason.” (collider.com)
About Cinematographer Eric Branco
A native of New York City, Eric Branco attended The Bronx High School of Science and the School of Visual Arts before beginning his career in film. Branco has lensed several feature films including V/H/S (dir. Glenn McQuaid), and “Clemency” (dir. Chinonye Chukwu), which took home the Grand Jury Prize at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival. He recently lensed “The 40-Year-Old Version” (dir. Radha Blank), winner of the Best Narrative Directing award at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival. He has also shot numerous short films, such as “Night Shift” (dir. Marshall Tyler), “The River” (dir. Sam Handel), “Moths & Butterflies” (dir. Alfonso Johnson), and “The Compositor” (dir. John Mattiuzzi), winner of a Student Academy Award. Branco’s work has screened at festivals worldwide, including Sundance, TriBeCa, Toronto International Film Festival, Slamdance and SXSW. He was recently named one of Variety’s “10 Cinematographers to Watch” 2019, and one of American Cinematographer’s “Rising Stars of Cinematography” 2020. Eric lives with his wife and daughter in Los Angeles. In the before-times, they could usually be found out and about at baseball games, restaurants, or museums… But these days, they’re mostly found at home. (ericbrancodp.com)
About Writer and Director Chinonye Chukwu
Chinonye Chukwu is a Nigerian-born, Alaskan-raised screenwriter, producer and director. A recipient of the prestigious Princess Grace Award, Chinonye’s short, “The Dance Lesson,” premiered at the Ritz Theater of Philadelphia and was later acquired by MindTV for regional network distribution. The film was also a Regional Finalist for the 2010 Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences Student Academy Awards and an Honorary Mention at the Los Angeles International Film Festival. Chinonye’s other work includes Igbo Kwenu!, a recipient of the PIFVA Subsidy Grant from the independent ﬁlm community and both the “Best Motion Picture Award” and “Best Screenplay Award” at the 2009 Diamond Screen Festival. In 2012 she completed her first feature narrative, “Alaskaland,” the story of an estranged Nigerian-American brother and sister who reunite in their Alaskan hometown. Her 2019 death row drama, “Clemency,” starring Alfre Woodard and Aldis Hodge, which she wrote and directed, received the U.S. Dramatic Grand Jury Prize at Sundance 2019. She is a director on the TV series, “Americanah,” based on the novel of the same name by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. (africanfilmny.org)