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Sundance Film Festival

‘Clemency,’ the best film at Sundance, was written and directed by a black woman

Director Chinonye Chukwu brings a gripping story of death row to the film festival

PARK CITY, Utah — In an early scene in Chinonye Chukwu’s Clemency, the death row inmate whom Aldis Hodge expertly brings to life is allowed outside for some solo time. His hands are cuffed behind him as he slips them inside an opening in the door, and a prison guard unlocks his cuffs. Hodge looks up, blinks at the sunlight, looks down and spots a basketball in the corner of the private yard.

He’s “free.”

And for these lonely few minutes, Anthony Woods can play hoops, be alone with his thoughts and dare to dream that someone in a high office in his state — the exact state is unidentified in the film — will grant him clemency.

“I interviewed a lot of wardens and directors of corrections. I read a lot of books and articles and spoke to men who were on death row and visited prisons and talked to death row lawyers. But that was just scratching the surface.” — Chinonye Chukwu

Chukwu’s is a name you should get used to. You’ll likely be hearing a lot of it in this next year. Her film, a well-researched drama that brings humanity to the people charged with carrying out executions, is the result of eight years of work. And at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival, her examination of the emotional pangs of those who are tasked with having to end a life, by the film’s actors and Chukwu herself, launched an impressive 2020 award season campaign.

“I interviewed a lot of wardens and directors of corrections. I read a lot of books and articles and spoke to men who were on death row and visited prisons and talked to death row lawyers,” Chukwu says of her research for the film. “But that was just scratching the surface. I was in New York City at the time when I wrote the first two drafts, and then I moved to Ohio and I volunteered on a clemency case for a woman named Tyra Patterson who was serving a life sentence for a crime she did not commit. Tyra has since gotten out over a year ago. I also volunteered on about 13 other clemency cases for women serving life sentences, protecting themselves against their abusers. I went to prisons around the country and spoke to even more wardens and lawyers and men who were exonerated from death row, men who were on death row. I asked them to read my script, and they ripped it apart completely. I also created a film program in a women’s prison … where I [taught] incarcerated women to make their own short films. And all of that clearly informed every draft at my directorial approach, and really grounded it in a level of reality and humanity and, hopefully, authenticity.”

Her film — she both wrote and directed it — was inspired by the Sept. 21, 2011, execution of Troy Davis, who was convicted of and executed for the Aug. 19, 1989, murder of police officer Mark MacPhail in Savannah, Georgia. His story sparked national interest. Human rights groups such as Amnesty International, former President Jimmy Carter and even Pope Benedict XVI and Archbishop Desmond Tutu took up his cause. Davis maintained his innocence in the officer’s murder.

“One of the things that really intrigued me and moved me leading up to his execution,” Chukwu says of Davis, “was that there were a group of retired wardens and directors of corrections who were a part of the hundreds of thousands of people protesting against his execution. And their urging of the governor … was not just on the grounds of potential innocence, but it was also speaking to the emotional and psychological consequences that they knew killing Troy would have on the corrections staff sanctioned to do so. So it made me really think, what must it be like for your livelihood to be tied to the taking of human life? And I thought that that would be a really interesting, unique, human way to enter this world and to explore the human consequences of incarceration, and more specifically capital [punishment]. The majority of people who are not only on death row, but certainly the majority of people who are put to death, are black and brown.”

Alfre Woodard, who also co-produces the film with Chukwu, stars as warden Bernadine Williams. The film opens with a Latino criminal being executed, the warden’s 12th execution, and his death by lethal injection doesn’t go off without a major problem. Williams is clearly battling emotional trauma, and Woodard’s portrayal is one of the first this year to be talked about as a contender for a 2020 Oscar nomination.

“We went to visit some prisons [in Ohio]. We listened to them. And we understood what we have to do — had to be honest, had to be truthful — because there are lives in the balance.” — Alfre Woodard

Woodard said she was sold on the project after Chukwu took her to Ohio.

“We went to visit some prisons there,” Woodard said after the premiere. They met with about five wardens, both men and women, and learned about their stories. “We listened to them. And we understood what we have to do — had to be honest, had to be truthful — because there are lives in the balance. One of the things that … I rallied behind is … to look at people that we charge with carrying out the work. [And] that we decide whether we’re pro or con, but nobody wants to do the business. We forget about them, and they suffer tremendous PTSD [post-traumatic stress disorder] on the level of people doing multiple tours of duty in Afghanistan. And I think it’s important for us to know.”

For his part, Hodge says he studied up on the Davis case and visited California’s best-known state prison, San Quentin.

“I took a tour around with lifers, guys in there, 25 to life … and observe the gentlemen that were actually on death row and saw how they were treated. And they’re treated differently than the other inmates. When they cross the yard, everybody is supposed to turn their back and not look at them, not speak to them. It’s crazy. Their communication is cut off; their humanity is stripped to a degree,” he said.

From that, he was able to help figure out who his character was as a human being — and not just an inmate.

“His whole reality is looking at the certainty of death, a hopeless reality. How do you gather the strength to find hope? And you’re grabbing at every little thing you can because that’s all you have to go with to the grave,” Hodge said. “That’s the least bit of dignity that you have. And I really enjoyed trying to explore that in Anthony.”

Kelley L. Carter is a senior entertainment writer at The Undefeated. She can act out every episode of the U.S version of "The Office," she can and will sing the Michigan State University fight song on command and she is very much immune to Hollywood hotness.