Clemency director Chinonye Chukwu has made history as the first Black woman to win Sundance Film Festival’s Grand Jury Prize, the festival’s highest award.
The film stars Alfre Woodard as prison warden Bernadine Williams and Aldis Hodge as Anthony Woods, a death row inmate. Williams has been able to separate her emotions from her job, which has allowed her to direct 12 executions. But Anthony’s case, including his deteriorating mental state due to his impending death, begins to change Williams forever.
Shadow and Act‘s Aramide A. Tinubu interviewed Chukwu during Sundance. Chukwu said that she was inspired to make the film the day after Troy Davis, a man on death row convicted of murdering Savannah, Georgia, police officer Mark MacPhail, was executed in 2011. Davis maintained he was innocent throughout his time on death row, and even though there were many petitions and calls to halt his execution, the state went through with it anyway.
“Troy Davis was executed in September 2011, and hundreds of thousands of people protested against his execution, including some retired wardens and directors of corrections,” she said. “They all banded together and wrote a letter to the governor appealing for clemency, not just on the grounds of potential innocence, but also because of the emotional and psychological consequences they knew that killing Troy would have on the prison staff who were sanctioned to do so.”
“The morning after he was executed a lot of us were feeling a lot of things, frustration, sadness, anger,” she continued. “I thought if so many of us are navigating these feelings, what must it be like for the people who had to kill him? What must it be like for your livelihood to be tied to the taking of human life? I was just really fascinated by that.”
Clemency wasn’t the only film featuring POC narratives to do well at Sundance. The Last Black Man in San Francisco‘s Joe Talbot won the Directing Award for a dramatic film, and political documentary Knock Down the House, featuring Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and directed and produced by Rachel Lears, won the Grand Jury Prize for Documentary.
Chinonye Chukwu at an event for Clemency. Photo credit: Tibrina Hobson/Getty Images