How 'Clemency' Team Tried to Capture Humanity of Death-Row Inmates, Prison Workers

Clemency - TIFF - Publicity - H 2019
Courtesy of TIFF

Writer-director Chinonye Chukwu, star Aldis Hodge and producer Bronwyn Cornelius share what they hope people will take away from the film, while star Alfre Woodard reveals what's next for her lead character of warden Bernadine Williams.

[The following story contains mild spoilers from Clemency.]

To make the death-row drama Clemency, stars Alfre Woodard and Aldis Hodge and writer-director Chinonye Chukwu immersed themselves in the prison community.

Chukwu was initially inspired by the 2011 execution of death-row inmate Troy Davis and wondered about the toll overseeing such events took on the prison wardens. She moved to Ohio, volunteered on 14 clemency cases and interviewed "dozens and dozens and dozens," as Chukwu told The Hollywood Reporter, of wardens, lawyers, corrections staff and people who were incarcerated, with many of those she consulted reading and offering feedback on her script.

Woodard got involved shortly after reading Chukwu's screenplay, which reached her thanks to a fortuitous connection between producer Bronwyn Cornelius and Woodard's agent, and was guided by her writer-director in understanding the community she'd be inhabiting on screen as prison warden Bernadine Williams, who spends the film preparing to oversee the execution of inmate Anthony Woods (Hodge), as she confronts the psychological toll that her grim profession has taken.

"Chinonye and I went on a prison tour," Woodard told THR at Clemency's New York premiere last month. "She took me…to meet wardens. We met about four wardens with the director of corrections, a man who worked in four death-row states as a warden, who choreographed our execution scenes. We spent time with him. I had the privilege of spending some time with two condemned men on the row."

Through her research, Chukwu was struck by the "humanity that exists behind prison walls."

"It expanded my capacity for empathy in every aspect of my life," she said.

Hodge and Alex Castillo, who plays another death-row inmate, also found themselves focusing on the humanity of those behind bars as they prepared for their roles.

"I went to San Quentin with our producer Bronwyn Cornelius and I saw how the men on death row were treated and how differently they were treated and how every little semblance of humanity was being stripped away," Hodge told THR. "So that all informed how I wanted to approach the idea of my character in terms of what I wanted him to represent to the audience."

Castillo spent time with former inmates and their family members and even spent a few hours in a cell in the decommissioned prison where the film was shot, he said, to try to better understand the mentality of the incarcerated.

The film's authentic portrayal includes a stark look at Bernadine's methodical approach.

"It was very important to me to capture the realness," Chukwu said.

And Bernadine is a diligent, focused warden, sticking with the job because, Woodard said, "It's a calling."

"All the women I met, they came to that position from mental health, they were psychologists, therapists, they worked in social services, they were social workers, so you stick with it because you don't abandon ship because there are storms," she told THR. "You know that you're the person standing between the dignity of these people who are incarcerated, condemned and who have the potential and are put to death. As long as the law is there, somebody's got to be there and better people who are equipped to deal with the fragility of human psychology and damaged spirituality while you're taking them through this process than people who aren't trained."

Even Woodard's role as the prison warden is an accurate reflection of the demographics of that job, Cornelius said, noting that the existence of black female prison wardens in men's maximum security prisons is "quite common."

While Woodard's name regularly popped up as a potential best actress Oscar nominee since the critically acclaimed film won the Dramatic Competition Grand Jury Prize at last year's Sundance Film Festival, Clemency failed to earn any nods from the Academy on Monday. Still, the movie, which Neon released in New York and L.A. last month and is expanding to other cities this month, is up for three Independent Spirit Awards and three NAACP Image Awards. 

Cornelius said she hoped the film makes people "stop and think" about the "complicated" justice system and issue of the death penalty.

"I think we all make these flash judgments about what it is and what should be happening to people without really stopping to think about the humanity of all involved and where and how might we all be complicit in not taking the time to consider everybody's humanity and the impact that's having," she said. "There's huge rates of PTSD and divorce and addiction among prison workers and within that community and again I don't think that's something that we are made aware of and we really need to stop as a society and think about the impact that that is having…and what are we asking people to do. People can then make their own choices as to what could and should be done."

For Chukwu the takeaway comes back to a sense of understanding.

"I hope that it expands people's own capacity for empathy," she said. "I hope that this really sparks an understanding of the humanities that are tied to an incarceration and that people really consider what it means to lock somebody up and that there are real lives at stake."

And as people are pondering the death penalty and those who carry it out, Woodard says what's next for Bernadine, as she's shown walking out of the prison as the screen fades to black, is that "she goes away."

"She goes to wash her spirit clean and then she'll know what to do, but she's got to purge," she said. "She's been so transformed by the end of the movie that I thought the manifestation of that was just that she'd walk down the road, just walk into the darkness."