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“Do We as a Society Have a Right to Kill?”: Chinonye Chukwu’s Film “Clemency” Examines Death Penalty

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As the state of Texas this week carried out the nation’s first execution of the year, we look at “Clemency,” a new film starring Alfre Woodard that examines the death penalty from the perspective of those who have to carry out executions as well as the condemned. Woodard portrays prison warden Bernadine Williams as she prepares to oversee what would be her 12th execution as warden in the aftermath of one that was horribly botched. As her life seems to unravel, Williams, for the first time, grapples with what it means to be part of a system of state-sanctioned murder, as the execution date for Anthony Woods, played by Aldis Hodge, gets closer. The film premiered at the Sundance Film Festival. We speak with Nigerian-American writer-director Chinonye Chukwu, who says she was inspired to take on the subject after the execution of Troy Anthony Davis, who was put to death by the state of Georgia on September 21, 2011. Davis’s execution was carried out despite major doubts about evidence used to convict him of killing police officer Mark MacPhail, and his death helped fuel the national movement to abolish the death penalty.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re broadcasting from the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah. As the state of Texas this week carried out the nation’s first execution of the year, we look at Clemency, a new film starring Alfre Woodard that examines the death penalty from the perspective of the executioners as well as the condemned. Woodard portrays prison warden Bernadine Williams as she prepares to oversee what would be her 12th execution as warden in the aftermath of one that was horribly botched. As her life seems to unravel, Williams, for the first time, grapples with what it means to be part of a system of state-sanctioned murder, as the execution date for Anthony Woods, played by Aldis Hodge, gets closer.

The Nigerian-American writer-director Chinonye Chukwu says she was inspired to take on the subject after the execution of Troy Anthony Davis, who was put to death by the state of Georgia September 21st, 2011. Davis’s execution was carried out despite major doubts about evidence used to convict him of the killing of police officer Mark MacPhail. His death helped fuel the national movement to abolish the death penalty.

Well, I sat down with Chinonye Chukwu Thursday, as the film continues to play before packed houses here at Sundance. She began by talking about why she made the film.

CHINONYE CHUKWU: Well, I was really inspired to write Clemency the morning after Troy Davis was executed. And I know that you have done a lot of work leading up to his execution. And hundreds of thousands of people around the world were protesting against his execution, including a handful of retired wardens and directors of corrections. And they band together, and they wrote a letter to the governor urging clemency, not just on the grounds of potential innocence, Troy’s potential innocence, but also because of the emotional and psychological consequences they knew killing Troy would have on the prison staff sanctioned to do so.

So, the morning after he was executed, so many of us were sad and frustrated and angry. And I thought, “If we’re all dealing with these emotions, what must it be like for the people who had to kill him? You know, what is it like for your livelihood to be tied to the taking of human life?” And so, that was the seed that was planted, and it was a way for me to enter an exploration of humanities that exist between prison walls.

AMY GOODMAN: Now, interestingly, the prison warden is played by Alfre Woodard, an African-American woman. How typical is it for a woman, or an African-American woman, to be a warden in this country, a prison warden?

CHINONYE CHUKWU: It’s more typical than you think. The problem is that media doesn’t represent a lot of wardens who aren’t white men. And so, in the state of Ohio, for example, the majority of the wardens there, in all the prisons, are black women specifically. I only met one or two male wardens in all the prisons that I visited there. The warden in San Quentin prison, which has the largest death row facility in the country, was a woman for like 20 years, until she retired. So, there’s a female wardens’ association, as well. So, it’s a lot more common than people might think.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about the research you did for this film.

CHINONYE CHUKWU: I did a deep, deep 4-year dive into the research and advocacy required to tell this story. I started in 2013, where I just did secondary research, where I interviewed a lot of those retired wardens and directors of corrections and death row lawyers and men who were exonerated from death row. I visited prisons and read a lot of books and articles. And that was just scratching the surface. I was living in New York City at the time.

And then, in 2014, I moved to Ohio and volunteered on a clemency case for a woman named Tyra Patterson, who was serving a life sentence for crimes she didn’t commit. And I worked very closely with her legal team, and shooting a lot of video testimonials of her and her co-defendants in the prison, and traveling around the country videotaping a national PSA, featuring a lot of advocates and activists, urging the governor to grant Tyra clemency. I volunteered—

AMY GOODMAN: And she was in?

CHINONYE CHUKWU: She was in Dayton. She was incarcerated first in Dayton Correctional Institution, and then she moved to a facility in Cleveland. And she got out over a year ago.

And I volunteered with different organizations for a mass clemency appeal for 13 other women who are serving life sentences. I also created a film program in the same prison that Tyra was incarcerated in, where I taught women who are incarcerated to make their own short films and script to screen. I also talked to many, many more lawyers and wardens, and family and friends of people who have been directly impacted by incarceration, and activists and organizers and chaplains, and asked them to read drafts of the script. And they marked it up, word for word. I had wardens on speed dial, chaplains on speed dial, during production, who can really make sure I got the details right. We flew out Dr. Allen Ault, who was—who is a very ardent anti-death penalty activist. And—

AMY GOODMAN: I mean, Dr. Allen Ault was the warden of the—


AMY GOODMAN: —death row prison—


AMY GOODMAN: —where Troy Anthony Davis was executed.

CHINONYE CHUKWU: Exactly, exactly.

AMY GOODMAN: And he’s the one who, among others, appealed to Governor Nathan Deal to vacate the death sentence for Troy.

CHINONYE CHUKWU: And he was—I’ve been speaking with him for a couple years, throughout the whole writing and revising of the script. And we flew him out on set. And he walked actors through the blocking of execution scenes and how to strap a man onto the gurney. And, yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: So, talk about the conversations you had, for example, with the chaplains, then with—in this case, you have medics that are going to inject the three-drug cocktail into the arm of the prisoner. All of these are extremely controversial—doctors involved with this, chaplains involved with this. I mean, were doctors willing to talk to you? And I found it interesting that in the cases in the film Clemency, it was a medic.


AMY GOODMAN: Though they said they’d call a doctor if the prisoner didn’t die very soon.

CHINONYE CHUKWU: Yeah. So, I spoke to medical professionals who were not—these are medical professionals who knew about the process, but who did not—who were not directly involved in an execution. There are states where there are medical professionals who have carried out executions. And, yes, it is controversial.

AMY GOODMAN: I mean, it has to be. They’re violating the Hippocratic Oath.


AMY GOODMAN: “Do no harm.”

CHINONYE CHUKWU: Exactly, exactly. And I know that in the state of Ohio that there is—there was a legislation that was trying to be passed where it would make the identities of the medical professionals who agree to do this anonymous—or, confidential, and so there isn’t that backlash. And the chaplains I spoke with, they no longer are chaplains, and they had to retire or move into a different path of corrections. One person who was a chaplain who oversaw—who was there during executions actually became a warden of a facility that doesn’t carry out the death penalty. But I know that it was a controversial choice. But I wanted to—I wanted to show how far—I wanted to show the different people who are implicated in this process.

AMY GOODMAN: Interestingly, just last week, a federal magistrate in—a magistrate judge issued an opinion likening Ohio’s current three-drug execution process to a combination of waterboarding and chemical fire. That opinion was used by Ohio Governor Mike DeWine to issue a 6-month reprieve to death row prisoner Warren Keith Henness. Talk about the use of lethal injection—and the chemicals. That’s the other part of it, increasingly drug companies saying, “You cannot use our chemicals, our drugs, to kill.”

CHINONYE CHUKWU: Yes. I mean, it was really—so, yes, so it’s becoming increasingly more difficult and controversial, how they get the cocktail—how they get the drugs. I mean, there are more—in my research, there are more and more prison facilities that are getting them off the black market. And I’ve talked to a lot of death row lawyers, who are using that as a way to—as part of their argument for cruel and unusual punishment. So, the lack of the drugs and the shadiness that’s involved in them getting the drugs, I found that that is starting to be incorporated into legal arguments for clemency.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about the medics and the doctors who do this.

CHINONYE CHUKWU: In my research, I found, in some botched executions that I did a lot of research on and studied—

AMY GOODMAN: Like Oklahoma.


AMY GOODMAN: Where the man’s head goes on fire.

CHINONYE CHUKWU: Yes. Clayton Lockett, I believe his name was. And I remember a conversation with Dr. Allen Ault, when he was giving me feedback on the script, and he was giving me notes on the opening execution scene. And Dr. Allen Ault, who had consulted on many executions, including in the state of Texas, he said that he was surprised that I had included a medical professional, because he had—he had worked in facilities where it was corrections officers that were inserting the needle. And they had—

AMY GOODMAN: Corrections officers inserting a needle. Nonmedical professionals.

CHINONYE CHUKWU: Nonmedical staff. And they would practice on oranges, leading up—

AMY GOODMAN: Before they stuck the needle in a prisoner’s arm.

CHINONYE CHUKWU: —leading up to the execution, because they practiced many, many, many, many, many, many, many times before the execution. I chose not to include that and have medical personnel, because that does happen in some facilities. But I was really struck by that.

AMY GOODMAN: Clemency director Chinonye Chukwu. We’ll be back with her after break.


AMY GOODMAN: “Trouble So Hard.” This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman. We’re broadcasting from the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah, as we return to my conversation with Clemency director Chinonye Chukwu.

AMY GOODMAN: In Clemency, there are two executions. Talk about the first, a Latino man.

CHINONYE CHUKWU: So, as I’m sure you know, black and brown people are disproportionately incarcerated. And black and brown people are disproportionately put on death row. And black and brown people are disproportionately put to death, once they’re on death row. And so, I was very intentional about representing that in the film.

You know, the first botched execution, it was important to show what can happen, you know, and to show the layers of complexities in the process. And that is kind of this shadow that’s cast over the entire film as a possibility that can happen again and again and again. And that really is fueling Bernadine’s internal conflict throughout the whole story.

AMY GOODMAN: Bernadine is played by Alfre Woodard. What was it like to direct her?

CHINONYE CHUKWU: Alfre Woodard is one of our greatest living actors. Watching her—watching her perform on set was a master class in acting. She channeled something in this role. And I was really excited to give her space to tap into her brilliance, and just give her time and let the camera sit with her as she really—as she really taps into her craft.

AMY GOODMAN: After the premiere, Alfre Woodard talked about her experience making the film.

ALFRE WOODARD: When I did my research, I went with her to prisons in Ohio. I met with condemned men, with women in medium-security prisons, men in maximum security and the people that work there, most importantly, the people that we ask to step into the breach, where we don’t want to go, while we hammer out whether we believe in capital punishment or not. Meanwhile, the people who are sanctioned with carrying those executions out, they have a higher—well, they have the highest degree of PTSD, that is comparable to our troops that do six and seven tours of duty in Afghanistan.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s actress Alfre Woodard, the star of Clemency. After the premiere of Clemency here at Sundance, in the Q&A, one member of the audience said, “Why did you focus on the warden?”

CHINONYE CHUKWU: I focused on the warden because—for a couple reasons. I wanted to explore and challenge the system of incarceration, of capital punishment, of the prison-industrial complex, through the gaze of the perpetrator, of a perpetrator of the system. I thought that doing so would widen the reach and widen the impact of the film beyond other progressive-minded people. And I think it would really complicate people’s thinking around the death penalty and around incarceration and the humanities that are tied to incarceration, if it’s not told through the lawyer, through the defense attorney or through a protester, but somebody who is a part of the system, somebody who might embody the values that, you know, somebody who’s for the death penalty might embody. And so, that was my biggest reason. We’ve never seen this perspective before, and it expands the humanities that are tied to incarceration.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about the lawyer who represents Anthony Woods, the death row prisoner. He’s constantly challenging the warden. Richard Schiff is the actor, well known for West Wing and other TV and films. That role, and who you talked to, to understand this position?

CHINONYE CHUKWU: Yeah, so, the lawyer—what I have observed, what I’ve found, is that the lawyer—particularly for people who have been incarcerated for a long time, for many people on death row, their lawyer is their one kind of link to the outside world. And there’s almost kind of like a chosen family relationship sometimes. And that is kind of what Richard’s character embodies. And that is one way that we enter the—enter Anthony and get into who he is, because that’s—when Richard’s character comes into the story, Anthony lets his guard down a little bit for the first time. And so, I thought that was really important, so he can help—his character helps us see Anthony’s humanity. I also didn’t want this film to be about litigation or about the facts of the case or about guilt or innocence, so we never go with the lawyer beyond prison walls, because it’s not important. Especially it’s not important to the humanities of the story. And so, his character is really kind of a combination of what I’ve observed in all the many lawyers that I worked closely with in the different clemency cases I volunteered for and the different lawyers I spoke with in the research.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Richard Schiff, who plays death row prisoner Anthony Woods’ lawyer.

RICHARD SCHIFF: And one of the great things about what Chinonye has created here is a story that’s about people that are deeply affected by the processes of the state that decides to execute people. And they are the ones that literally pull the lever. They’re the ones that accompany, chaperone people who are going to their deaths. And that’s what’s phenomenal about the story.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s Richard Schiff on the red carpet. Chinonye, as your film premiered here at Sundance, the state of Texas executed 61-year-old Robert Jennings by lethal injection. It was the first of the year in the state and nation, in the state of Texas, that leads the country in executions. Your thoughts?

CHINONYE CHUKWU: I mean, I don’t—it’s hard. I mean, I hope that I—I hope that this film can challenge that. I hope that this film can really encourage people to ask the question, “Do we, as a society, have the right to kill?” And not ask, “Should this person die or not?” but, “Do we, as a society, have the right to kill?” And so, when I hear that, when I read about that, that’s the first thing that pops in my head.

AMY GOODMAN: Were these discussions you were having on the set?

CHINONYE CHUKWU: Absolutely. Throughout the writing and the revising of the script, throughout pre-production, I talked about this with the cast. And, you know, some of the cast had complicated views, you know? And one of the things that makes it complicated is when we personalize: “Well, you know, I’m against the death penalty, but if anybody ever did anything to my mother or my, you know, whatever”—you know, or when I read about the man in Texas who was executed, the first thing: “Well, what did he do? I need to know what he did first, before I can determine how I feel about his execution.” And, you know, I had to challenge them. And I said, “Well, you’re against it, or you’re not.” You know, and when—and once again, it’s not necessarily about determining whether or not—who has the right to be seen as human. But do we, as a society, have the right to kill in the name of so-called justice? And so, we did have those conversations.

AMY GOODMAN: Hollywood still is the land of white male directors. Talk about really challenging all of this and what your experience here at Sundance means, and what it means to you to be an African-American woman director, really crashing through that ceiling.

CHINONYE CHUKWU: I don’t think about it until Nigerians, black people, black women and black girls reach out to me and tell me that they can see themselves in me, that me being here, me having made this film expands their possibilities. And that’s when the magnitude of this really hits me.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about your background.

CHINONYE CHUKWU: I am Nigerian-American. I was born in Nigeria.

AMY GOODMAN: Where in Nigeria?

CHINONYE CHUKWU: I was born in Rivers State, Nigeria, which is southeast Nigeria, in a city called Port Harcourt. My parents still live in Nigeria. Most of my family live in Nigeria. I grew up in a very traditional Nigerian household, very connected to my culture. And then I grew up predominantly in Fairbanks, Alaska.

AMY GOODMAN: How did you end up there?

CHINONYE CHUKWU: So, my parents are petroleum engineers. So, when I was a baby, after I was born in Nigeria, we had a short stint in Oklahoma. And then, when I was 6, 7 years old, we moved to Alaska, and I was there ’til I was 18. And then, when I was in school, in college and grad school, my parents—

AMY GOODMAN: Where did you go to grad school?

CHINONYE CHUKWU: I went to Temple University. I earned my MFA in film, focusing on screenwriting and directing. And that’s when my parents moved back to Nigeria. They were like, “All right, the baby is good.” And so they moved back, and they’ve been there ever since.

AMY GOODMAN: So, especially for young women and young women of color to hear the trajectory of your life—this is your first Sundance, and you’re directing Alfre Woodard and Wendell Pierce and Aldis Hodge, who plays Anthony Woods, who is the death row prisoner—talk about how you broke through to this point. Where did you go from graduate school?

CHINONYE CHUKWU: So, I just—one of the most impactful things to my filmmaking career was when I was awarded a Princess Grace Foundation grant in grad school, which was a $25,000 scholarship.

AMY GOODMAN: Princess Grace of Monaco?

CHINONYE CHUKWU: Princess Grace Foundation, yeah, Princess Grace of Monaco. There’s a foundation, a lovely foundation, where they award a handful of film students this amazing $25,000 award to make a film, their thesis film. And that is what helped me make my thesis film. And that thesis film helped me make my first feature. And that first feature is what helped me get a fellowship at Princeton. And that fellowship is where I wrote Clemency. And it goes on and on and on. And then I got another award through the Princess Grace Foundation, after the first one, that helped me make a short film called A Long Walk, which—and it’s that short film that really impressed some of the actors who eventually signed on, and along with the script.

And so, it was that award and continuing to make as many short films—and I made a first feature, and just—and teaching also helped me become a better filmmaker. And I just kept pushing. And I had a lot of rejection. I had a lot of rejection. But throughout the rejection, I think the biggest, the most useful thing that helped me get to where I am is that I had to learn how to not define my worth and my joy by external success or rejection. And once I detached from the ego of filmmaking, I became a better filmmaker, and I became more engaged in the craft of it and detached from outcome.

AMY GOODMAN: I mean, you broke new ground in so many ways. The cast is almost all African-American.

CHINONYE CHUKWU: Yeah. I love it. And it was just—you know, they’re amazing. They’re amazing talent, you know. And we need more stories where characters of color don’t have to explain their existence in the narrative, where they have these full, rich, nuanced emotional arcs that are not solely defined by their race and their gender.

AMY GOODMAN: And your activism in prisons, I mean, this is also unusual for a director of a film, that you have spent so much time as a teacher inside prisons, working with women. Explain more what you’ve done.

CHINONYE CHUKWU: So, I’ve been a film professor for over a decade, and I’ve been teaching college students how to tell their own stories. So when I started spending a lot of time in the prisons talking to different women incarcerated there connected to the first clemency case that I volunteered for, I realized that me helping people tell their stories shouldn’t be confined to the privileged walls of a college classroom. And I just had this idea: Well, why don’t I just bring my curriculum to the prison? These are stories that need to be told. And there are voices there. I don’t believe in giving a voice to the voiceless. That there are so many voices here, and people need to tell their stories. So, I created a 1-year curriculum—screenwriting, directing, production, post-production—and connected them to community artists, who helped them edit their films and do a sound mix. They had rehearsals in the prison. And once the films were done, we screened the films all over the country. And now that all the ladies in the inaugural class are out, they still continue to screen their films. So—

AMY GOODMAN: And why are they in—more often than not, in prison? Can you generalize?

CHINONYE CHUKWU: I think abuse. Abuse.

AMY GOODMAN: They are abused women.

CHINONYE CHUKWU: Abused women. Sexual violence, physical violence, that can lead to other issues, that lead to other issues, that lead to incarceration. The abuse-to-prison pipeline, I would say, is one of the biggest reasons.

AMY GOODMAN: What most surprised you, doing this film?

CHINONYE CHUKWU: How emotionally and psychologically similar I am to the characters, especially in terms of their navigating loneliness and isolation. You know, growing up, I struggled with depression and deep, deep, penetrating loneliness, and almost at 14, wanted to take my own life, and, thankfully, did not. But I have navigated my own kinds of darkness and had to transform my relationship to living and death, through almost dying. And I think that that’s something that Bernadine and Anthony, in the film, are also navigating. And I was surprised at how I didn’t know that, I didn’t make that connection, until we were shooting the film. And I realized that I see myself in these characters, and that is why I’m bringing—that is how they came out of me.

AMY GOODMAN: Chinonye Chukwu, the director of the new dramatic film Clemency. Special thanks to Park City Television and Conrad Iacobellis. This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org. We’ll be back in 30 seconds.

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