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Filmmaker Chinonye Chukwu On The Making Of 'Clemency'

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

The new movie "Clemency" begins in a terrifying place, but it isn't a horror movie in the traditional sense. It begins in an execution room as the warden presides over the death of an inmate.

And throughout the rest of the film, we follow her as another execution is about to take place, following a schedule that in another context might be a mortgage closing - meetings and more meetings. But we watch as the warden - Bernadine, played by Alfre Woodard - grapples with what it means to be the agent of another person's death, like in this scene, where she confides in her husband.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "CLEMENCY")

ALFRE WOODARD: (As Bernadine Williams) Because you can't know what it's like to look at these people every day, to talk to them every day - look in their faces, look in their family's faces. You can't know that because you don't do what I do - what I have to do.

MARTIN: The film, which has been called poignant and devastating, is written and directed by Chinonye Chukwu, who's the first black woman to take home Sundance's top prize for the film. When we spoke, I began asking why she chose to locate a story about the death penalty with the warden and not with the condemned.

CHINONYE CHUKWU: I was really moved to tell this story the morning after Troy Davis was executed in September, 2011. And hundreds of thousands of people protested against his execution, including a handful of retired wardens who had collectively overseen hundreds of executions. And they band together and wrote a letter to the governor of Georgia urging for choice clemency - not just on the grounds of his potential innocence, but they spoke to the emotional and psychological consequences killing Troy would have on the prison staff's sanction to do so.

And so that really intrigued me. As I was navigating my own feelings of anger and frustration and sadness over his execution, I just kept thinking about those wardens and those emotional, psychological consequences they spoke to and just asked myself, what must it be like for your livelihood to be tied to the taking of human life? If I was navigating all these complexities of emotions, what about the people who were sanctioned to carry out the execution? And being obsessed with that question is really what led me to my years of research and advocacy work.

MARTIN: And it's interesting. It did take years to research this film. I mean, obviously in part because you have an attention to detail, and you want it to be accurate, but I was curious about why it took so long. Is it in part because no one from the outside ever really gets to know these things or be a part of this process? Is that it?

CHUKWU: Well, when I wanted to write this, I knew nothing about prisons. I didn't even know what a warden did. I remember the first thing I did as part of my, quote-unquote, "research" was Google, what does a warden do (laughter)? So I was starting from scratch. So I knew that in order for me to be able to write this and to tell it with as much authenticity and integrity as possible, I really had to commit.

And so that wasn't just reading all the books I read and talking to the dozens and dozens of people that I spoke to, but it meant me relocating from New York City to Ohio and volunteering on clemency cases and teaching in the prisons and really immersing myself in the world that the film takes place in and also giving myself to the very people I was representing.

MARTIN: I think this film will be shocking to a lot of people for a lot of different reasons. I mean, one is that, you know, without giving too much away, the opening scene is very hard to watch. The first execution in the film is botched. It does not go as planned. It is very hard to watch. So I think that is going to be a shock to some people.

But also how Bernadine feels about her job as the warden is, I think, going to be a shock to some people. And I'll just play a short clip from the film. This is where she is - Bernadine is overseeing the imminent execution of a man named Anthony Woods who's accused of killing a police officer in the course of a robbery. He maintains his innocence.

But throughout the movie, another character in the film is Woods' lawyer, Marty, who's fighting for him because he doesn't feel that he's guilty but also because he feels a death penalty is wrong. And this is where they have a meet-up at a bar.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "CLEMENCY")

RICHARD SCHIFF: (As Marty Lumetta) How do you keep doing it?

WOODARD: (As Bernadine Williams) I do my job. You want to play it as good guys and bad guys, and I'm one of the bad guys. I give these men respect, Marty - all the way through.

MARTIN: Marty being played by Richard Schiff - two very powerful performances. How did you come to that insight that the people doing this job feel that they are offering dignity to people? It's not just because they are operating with a sense of vengeance. I think maybe people might, you know, think, oh, yeah. Well, that's a bad guy, so I'm putting a stop to the bad guy. But you give it a whole other dimension. How did you come to that?

CHUKWU: Well, in talking with some of the wardens and retired wardens, some of them expressed to me that, you know, this is a practice, a system that's going to continue with or without me. And I would much rather try to administer it with as much dignity - as morbid as that sounds - as possible within a space that is dehumanizing.

MARTIN: And why make the warden a black woman? I think that that's another thing that's going to surprise some people.

CHUKWU: I did not think twice about it. I tend to write in my likeness, and I just was, like, why not? It just seemed to make all the sense in the world. Most of the wardens I spoke with in the state of Ohio are black women. A lot of the wardens I spoke with in general are women. And so what we see in media representations of wardens is not that at all. It's mostly white men. So there's a different reality that's being portrayed.

I also wanted to create a black female protagonist who was rooted in humanity and who had a fully dynamic and dimensional narrative that was not solely defined by her race, gender or the emotional needs of a man.

MARTIN: I think it is fair to say that you oppose the death penalty. That would be an accurate statement, wouldn't it?

CHUKWU: Yes, it would.

MARTIN: OK. So is it your hope that other people will come to your point of view on this in making this film? Because I do have to say and I want to say that the film is not one-sided. I mean, there is doubt in the film, as there was in the case of Troy Davis, about whether the inmate who's about to be killed - Anthony Woods in the film - is actually guilty of that which he is accused. But if your intention is to drive people toward a conclusion, you're pretty fair about it and even-handed about it, and I'm just wondering about that as an artistic decision.

CHUKWU: Well, my first intention was to not inundate the narrative with my personal political opinion because I believe that in order to get audiences to really interrogate questions of capital punishment, I can't tell them what to think. What I can do is show you the humanities, and you come to your opinion and your observations.

If this film inspires people to be against the death penalty and - or at least to question whether or not it is a form of justice and mercy, then that's great. At the very least, I hope people can walk away from this with - and really understand and feel that there are humanities that are behind prison walls.

And the reason why it wasn't explicitly clear about whether or not Anthony was innocent or guilty is because I don't want the audience's ability to see his or anybody else who is incarcerated's humanity to be contingent upon knowing their innocence or guilt. And so I hope that the film can really push audiences in that direction as well.

MARTIN: Before we let you go, can I ask you how the whole experience of working on this film changed you? Because many of the people who've written about it, have seen it so far, have been haunted by it. What about you? I mean, you spent years thinking about this. Do you think this changed you?

CHUKWU: It has transformed me. Writing, directing, researching, committing my life to this - not just film, but to the people who are represented in the film has changed me in that it has expanded my capacity for empathy. It has really made me redefine what justice and mercy really are. It has really pushed me to not define people by their worst possible acts. It has really made it clear to me that directing is empathy. And so it's made me a better human, it has made me a more compassionate person and it's made me a better storyteller.

MARTIN: That is Chinonye Chukwu, director of the new film "Clemency." It's out now.

Chinonye Chukwu, thank you so much for joining us.

CHUKWU: Thank you so much for having me. This was great. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.


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