In 2011, Chinonye Chukwu was saddened, frustrated and angered when Troy Davis was executed at a state prison in Georgia. Despite the thousands of people who protested the decision, the governor refused to spare his life, setting the filmmaker on a path to her groundbreaking project, Clemency.
The Nigerian writer and director took on the gut-wrenching work of researching capital punishment and the toll it takes on the people who actually carry out the executions. Clemency was shot in only 17 days and includes masterful performances from Alfre Woodard and Aldis Hodge.
The 2019 film solidified Chukwu’s place in history as the first Black woman to win the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance.
“Winning at Sundance gave the film the platform it needed in order to be seen,” Chukwu explains. “It's one of those things that I'm proud of, but I'm not making films for that purpose. I've spent many years of my life on a deep spiritual journey of detaching from the ego of filmmaking. And so what made getting into Sundance and certainly winning Sundance that much sweeter was that I was in a space of joy and peace before the win.”
According to the Criminal Justice Project of the NAACP, there were 2,656 people on death row in the United States as of July 1, 2019, a statistic that made Clemency’s subject matter an urgent one. Chukwu grappled with the weight of the film’s subject matter.
“I lived with this story and with this film for years, and it took an emotional toll on me. For a lot of the journey, I was really trying to emotionally compartmentalize. I had a job to do, but I realized that I wasn't allowing myself to experience the emotions,” Chukwu says. “Here I am spending so much time making sure I bring out the humanity of these characters, but I wasn't giving myself permission to be human and to feel it.”
Chukwu was committed to understanding the notion of capital punishment and her research shows in the film, which hit theaters on Christmas. Clemency forced viewers to confront their own ideas on the death penalty by offering a restrained, fact-based look at what goes in to an execution, illuminating countless cracks in a system that has been broken for years.
While Chukwu’s exhaustive dive into the subject of capital punishment may lead people to think she’s hellbent on one cause, that couldn’t be further from the truth.
“I'm not an issue-driven filmmaker,” Chukwu says. “I think that the way you explore issues is through really good storytelling. I go where the story is. This year, I have written two projects and they are very different from Clemency. I wanted to immerse myself in a different world narratively, and I'm excited about that.”
In fact, she has several more projects on the horizon that are equally compelling.
“One of the projects that I have coming up is an adaptation of Elaine Brown's memoir, A Taste of Power. Elaine Brown is the first and only female leader of the Black Panther Party. So I'm very excited about that.”
— Cortney Wills