Chinonye Chukwu’s Film “Clemency” Examines the Death Penalty

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. 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.


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 —

CHINONYE CHUKWU: He was — yes.

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.

CHINONYECHUKWU: — 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.