“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.”
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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.