Time can mean everything and nothing at all depending on your circumstances. For incarcerated people —specifically those on Death row, and prison employees responsible for ending lives, time is all-consuming. In her masterfully haunting drama, Clemency —director Chinonye Chukwu examines the lives of Bernadine Williams (Alfre Woodard)— a prison warden, and Anthony Woods (Aldis Hodge) — a man on death row. Though Bernadine has worked tirelessly to maintain an emotional masque —one that has allowed her to direct the execution of 12 incarcerated men —her facade is beginning to crack.
With his death warrant signed —Bernadine finds herself drawn to Anthony, a man grasping on to the very last fragments of his sanity as death hovers around him. Just after Clemency’s premiere at Sundance Film Festival, and before it won the U.S. Dramatic Grand Jury Prize, Shadow and Act sat down with Chukwu to discuss the unnerving story, and why she was inspired to write it in the first place.
“I was really inspired to tell the story the morning after Troy Davis was executed,” Chukwu remembered. “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. 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.”
Davis’ execution haunted Chukwu in more than one way —it also made her think about the interworkings of a prison’s death row block. “The morning after he was executed a lot of us were feeling a lot of things, frustration, sadness, anger,” she said thoughtfully. “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. I thought that it would be a really unique way of entering the prison system and entering capital punishment and the need to humanize people who are existing between prison walls. I thought a warden’s perspective could be very unique, and could potentially engage an even greater amount of people in the story.”
With the idea for Clemency hovering in her consciousness —the Alaskaland director embarked on a four-year journey of research. “I talked with many wardens and retired wardens, and various corrections staff and executive staff, and lawyers, and men and women, and people who were incarcerated,” she said. “They all informed my kind of creation of the characters, my building and my writing of the characters, and my approach to how to portray them.”
Still, in order to make a film that would sit with the audience long after they left the theater, Chukwu knew she needed the right actress to embody Bernadine —a woman whose work and home life are seeping into each other. Alfre Woodard was the filmmaker’s only choice. “Very few people can do what she did with this movie,” Chukwu said. “This character is so emotionally contained and has to communicate so much non-verbally. Alfre can communicate so much with just her eyes. She is so brilliantly subtle.”
For Anthony Woods—a man the world had seemingly forgotten about until he’s staring death in the face, Chukwu knew Underground actor Aldis Hodge could deliver. At six foot one, there were so many times on screen when Hodge seemed small and helpless. The moments of hope and anguish in his story are all overwhelmingly powerful. “I think he’s a revelation in this movie,” Chukwu said. “He already came with brilliance and talent. We spoke extensively before we began shooting. He went to San Quentin with my producer and talked with men who are on Death row, serving life sentences. All of that informed his understanding of his character and the emotional and psychological world of the character, but also the space of a prison. I tried to create a safe space for him to fully tap into all of the research that we’ve been doing and to do the soul work that was needed to get that performance. He rose to the occasion.”
More than examining the characters that embody this massive steel cage — Chukwu was careful to orient her audience in the claustrophobic spaces of the prison. One scene in particular, when Anthony steps outside for his daily recreation was absolutely gut-wrenching. “I really wanted to give audiences a sense of the space, and a sense of the incagement, and how it was wrapping around him, and the cyclicalness of the world that he’s in, and the mundaneness of it, the routineness he can’t escape,” she emphasized. “I wanted to try to put the audience in that position. Just when you think there’s going to be some release, there’s not. Even in the possibility and the hope of a sky and freedom that goes beyond the cage, he’s still trapped.”
There are also constant shots of the clock in Bernadine’s office —a reminder of what’s been lost and the horrors that are coming. “Time is a complicated, painful thing when you’re incarcerated,” Chukwu mused. “Time means something different when you’re serving a life sentence. Time means something different when you’re waiting to die. Time means something different when you’ve got your death warrant. Time means something different when you have no idea if, at the very last second, you’re going to get clemency. There’s a lot of waiting in prison, so I wanted audiences to have different experiences with time.”
As powerful as Bernadine’s perspective in the prison is, the Princeton University’s Hodder Fellowship recipient wanted to make sure we understood who the character was outside of her role as warden. “It’s so important to me to portray the protagonist character as a fully realized human being,” Chukwu said. “As Black women, we are not often portrayed in leading roles, first of all. When we are, it is often not a complete picture. Our narratives are solely defined by our race, our gender, and/or the emotional needs and insecurities of the men we are connected to. It was really important to me that I show all of these many layers of Bernadine’s life, to show how it’s affecting her internal conflicts and is affecting all these areas of her life. To make her real, to make her human and complex.”
Bernadine is not the only Black woman in the film with agency. “I think it’s deliciously complicated to have two different Black female characters in the film who are prioritizing their own needs above that of anybody else, particularly the men that they are connected to,” Chukwu said. “I don’t want any of the character’s lives or storylines to be easy. I want them to be real and human and complicated.”
Up next, Chukwu is using her lens to center another very powerful Black woman. She has been tapped to helm the adaptation of former Black Panther leader Elaine Brown’s memoir, A Taste of Power. “All I can really say right now is that I have wanted to direct Elaine Brown’s memoir A Taste of Power for years,” she said coyly. “This has been a bucket list of mine, and her story, her journey has definitely impacted me and influenced me and helped in my self-actualization as a human being, as a Black woman, and I’m just honored and I’m so excited. I’m really happy that this is able to happen.”
Clemency premiered at Sundance Film Festival on January 27, 2019.
Aramide A. Tinubu is a film critic and entertainment writer. As a journalist, her work has been published in EBONY, JET, ESSENCE, Bustle, The Daily Mail, IndieWire and Blavity. She wrote her master’s thesis on Black Girlhood and Parental Loss in Contemporary Black American Cinema. She’s a cinephile, bookworm, blogger and NYU + Columbia University alum. You can find her reviews on Rotten Tomatoes or A Word With Aramide or tweet her @wordwitharamide