×
You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

Chinonye Chukwu on Golden Globes Shutout of Female Directors

Clemency” writer-director Chinonye Chukwu is weighing in on the HFPA’s failure to nominate a female director for the 2020 Golden Globes.

“It’s part of the systemic oppressions that we’re all apart of and that’s internalized in many,” Chukwu told Variety in response to Monday morning’s announcement. “We need to get people in positions of power who want to dismantle it, who see women of color as talented with ability, and who see our films and see us.”

On Monday night, the filmmaker was in New York City to celebrate her upcoming film “Clemency” with a special screening held at the Whitby Hotel. For the film, which she began heavily researching and writing after the execution of Troy Davis in 2011 (even volunteering on an Ohio clemency case), Chukwu won the Sundance Film Festival’s Grand Jury Prize and was the first black woman to do so. Yet, as the Golden Globe nominations were announced, Chukwu was notably rebuffed, as was every other female writer and director this year.

“I understand the value of the award recognition,” she continued. “The Sundance win gave my film a platform to be where it’s at right now. So, it’s a complicated power structure. We just have a long way to go. People need to create space, give space, make space for other voices to be in positions of power, and we have to support films that don’t get recognized by white-centered, patriarchal institutions.”

Popular on Variety

In “Clemency,” Alfre Woodard plays a black warden charged with executing inmates of color and Chukwu explained she wouldn’t have it any other way. “I didn’t think twice about Bernadine being a black woman,” she said.

A nearly psychological study of the traumatic task some wardens bear of keeping as a profession the institutionalized and sanctioned taking of life, “Clemency” approaches its measured study of capital punishment with warden Bernadine Williams as its protagonist, instead of her death row inmates. And the choice to make that character a black woman — ladened by the increasing injury of her position as she approaches the execution of an inmate maintaining his innocence — does a sort of double work.

“Most of the women that I’ve met — and I’ve met four women wardens — were women of color. And it’s our imagination that wardens are all white men,” Woodard said. “And these women come to the job from the mental health field, from social work. Those are the people who know how to deal with damaged people that we have failed somehow, whether from education or access — that’s how people end up in prison. So, who better to deal with these men and women who were once boys and girls we didn’t value enough to respect?”

“These women aren’t in charge of the prison industrial complex,” she continued. “They are there making sure people are treated with dignity while we carry out the state mandated execution.”

Yet, set aside the importance of representation for real-world wardens, and at play in “Clemency” is a challenging complication of what could have been an easily imagined narrative of criminal injustice. A black warden, entrusted with carrying out the judgements of a system built on institutionalized racism, isn’t an easily squared portrait of law enforcement which disproportionately executes black and brown Americans.

“By Bernadine being a black woman,” Chukwu told Variety, “Anthony [her death row inmate appealing for clemency, played by Aldis Hodge] being a black man, it takes away the racial identity dynamics and situates the narrative in a more human perspective, in the humanity at stake in capital punishment. The conversation then becomes about the larger system. If you’re looking at a white warden and a black inmate, it’s too easy not to see that.”

Structuring her film around characters caught in the comfortably envisioned conflicts of a racial binary might easily distract audiences from the larger injustices at work.

“My intention in making my art,” she said, “was to not inundate the narrative with my own personal politics, but to complicate it. And I know that the way for people to really think about capital punishment, to think about incarceration, is to not be binary. Art has a responsibility to instigate. Activism can look a lot of different ways, and I feel like part of the activism of my film is portraying a black woman as a human being.”

“Clemency” is in theaters on Dec. 27.

Aldis Hodge, Chinonye Chukwu (Director), Alfre WoodardNeon Presents a New York Special Screening "CLEMENCY" a film by Chinonye Chukwu, New York, USA - 09 Dec 2019
CREDIT: Marion Curtis/StarPix for Neon/Shutterstock

More Scene

  • Blake Lively

    Why Blake Lively Isn't Trying to Be the 'Female James Bond' in 'The Rhythm Section'

    “The Rhythm Section,” Reed Morano’s new espionage thriller about a female assassin who sets out to avenge her family’s untimely death, is not a female-led approximation of a “James Bond” film. Though Barbara Broccoli, the magnate producer whose family has been solely responsible for the franchise, is producing the movie, “The Rhythm Section” is decidedly not [...]

  • Oscar Menu to Be Almost All

    Oscar Menu to Be Almost All Plant-Based

    The Oscars are getting greener. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announced on Monday that it will be offering entirely plant-based menus at today’s Oscar Nominees Luncheon and then in the Dolby Theatre lobbies prior to the 92nd Academy Awards on Feb. 9. The post-ceremony Governors Ball will be 70% plant-based, and 30% [...]

  • 'Little America' Team on Creating Immigration

    'Little America' Team on Creating the Immigration Anthology Series for Apple TV Plus

    Respect and authenticity were the key words at the screening of the new Apple TV Plus series “Little America” on Thursday in Los Angeles. Produced by Kumail Nanjiani and Emily V. Gordon and inspired by true stories featured in Epic Magazine, “Little America” is an anthology series focused on immigration. For executive producer Sian Heder, [...]

  • 2018 Sundance Film Festival - Egyptian

    Sundance 2020: The Ultimate Party Guide

    Heading to Park City? From intimate dinners and cocktail parties to late night bashes (that end just in time to head to brunch), there’s plenty to keep this year’s film festival attendees out of the cold between screenings. Here is Variety’s ultimate party guide for Sundance 2020:  Thursday, Jan. 23 “Summertime” Premiere Party Lyft Lounge, 8-11 [...]

  • BEVERLY HILLS, CALIFORNIA - JANUARY 21:

    Jenna Andrews Hosts Zhavia Ward, Lennon Stella at Jed Foundation Fundraiser

    Jenna Andrews, the Canadian singer-songwriter, record producer and executive, hosted a pre-Grammy event in partnership with The Jed Foundation at Alice and Olivia in West Hollywood on Tuesday.  The non-profit Jed is dedicated to protecting emotional health and preventing suicide. The foundation has partnered with high schools and colleges in order to “strengthen mental health, [...]

  • Coldplay - Chris Martin

    Grammys 2020: The Ultimate Party Guide

    Let the music play, indeed. The Grammys are just days away and dozens of parties are happening every night this week leading up to the big day, Sunday, Jan. 26. And the partying continues with several bashes following the ceremony. (All events listed are by invitation only unless marked otherwise; this list is being updated [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content