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Being Seen Is A Radical Act: Chinonye Chukwu On 'Clemency'

January 8, 2020
2 min read time

What do you think of when someone brings up prison wardens? Hollywood has trained us to imagine imposing, burly, middle-aged white men. Does someone like Alfre Woodard come to mind? This legend plays the lead in Clemency, the second feature film of director Chinonye Chukwu.

Chukwu is going to change our minds about what prison wardens look like and how we need more empathy in life and in the U.S. prison system of mass incarceration, whether people are innocent or not.

The director's background, observations on politics and her ethos set the tone for her body of work.

In Clemency, prison warden Bernadine Williams has carried out death row executions for years, and they’ve taken a toll on her. She must address the psychological and emotional distress her job creates as she prepares to execute another inmate, this time a black man. Ultimately, confronting her demons connects her to the man she is sanctioned to kill.

Chukwu is a third-culture kid; she was born in Nigeria and at age one, she moved to the U.S., first to Oklahoma and then to Fairbanks, Alaska, as the third sibling in her family.

She would live in Alaska until she turned 18. Her first feature is called alaskaLand; it’s about reconnecting with family and with the place where you grew up.

Inspired by the case of Troy Davis, who spent two decades in prison and was executed in September 2011 despite maintaining his innocence, Chukwu set out to create Clemency. She moved to Ohio, where she continued to teach film after earning her MFA. In the Midwest, Chukwu spends time with black women who are prison wardens and works with Pens to Pictures, a filmmaking collaborative that, according to the the organization’s Twitter account, teaches and empowers incarcerated women to make their own short films, from script to screen.

In 2013, Chukwu began to research and write Clemency. She would complete two drafts of the screenplay that year and go onto write several more after that. For four years, “everyone said no,” she said.

It was some time after “the one hundredth no” that Chukwu got the yes to fund Clemency, and to open the eyes of the world. When talking about the look and feel of the film, she said that she put a lot of focus into its post production, even pointing out more footage to her editor that could be cut.

She's not precious about everything that's shot; what Chukwu did fight for is the lack of music in the film — what gives it its “sterility, its starkness and its lack of sentimentality.” Also be on the lookout for a three-minute close-up of Alfre Woodard. In the words of Chukwu, “being seen is a radical act” and we get a good, long look at Clemency's lead character. Also with this film, Chukwu strives to show us what really goes on “in backyards in the U.S.” with “the millions of lives we don't hear or see anything about” — people behind bars, that is.

Next up for Chukwu is A Taste of Power, a film about Elaine Brown, the only woman leader of the Black Panther Party. Chukwu recommends the book Autobiography as Activism: Three Black Women of the Sixties about Elaine, Angela Davis and Assata Shakur.

If you want to know what to get Chukwu for the holidays, it's a good sit on the beach or more sleep.

She continues to teach and bring her students to events with her — film festivals and screenings included —  to show what is possible.

Chukwu reminds me that, “If we are fighting for change, we have to imagine that change,” that her joy is a “form of resistance” and that her personal throughline is to “live in my purpose and truth, that is beyond myself.” The fight continues with directors like Chukwu and films like Clemency.

The film comes out on Dec. 27.


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