“Clemency” opens in theaters December 27th. Directed by Chinonye Chukwu and starring the one and only Alfre Woodard – this film is idiosyncratic and raw. “Clemency” deals with the complex layers of the system and lets us into the psychology (and humanity) of the people that work in it.
Through years of having carried out death row executions – a prison warden (played by Alfre Woodard) fights some emotional and psychological demons as she ultimately connects with the man she is sanctioned to kill. We caught up with some of the cast and crew of the film to talk about their experience being a part of this important and eye-opening film.
The Knockturnal: What gravitated you towards the script?
Aldis Hodge: I loved how the script was written. I loved the way that the subject matter was executed, because I think that our writer/director Chinonye did a brilliant job with introducing the subject matter to us but not forcing upon us an opinion. Our job is mainly to put the art out there, give it to the world, let them take it for how they see it and what they feel, they feel. But we’re not supposed to tell the audience what to feel. So when it comes to capital punishment, it’s not about oh you’re right or wrong if you believe this or that… it’s this is what you don’t know about it and this is how things really go down – and now you ask yourself as an audience – how do you feel about that? So I thought that she was brilliant in how she wrote it. I wanted to work with the person behind this.
The Knockturnal: What was the most challenging day of filming and the most challenging day for you as an actor? This is some heavy material and not that easy to tap into mentally. Talk to me a little about that.
Aldis Hodge:I think for me, I was quite excited and happy to go to work everyday. We had a good tone set because Chinonye came to set with great energy everyday. We had really a healthy, positive vibe around set. In terms of technical challenges I would say… have you seen the film yet?
The Knockturnal: I have not. Oh you don’t want to spoil it for me (laughs) I hear you.
Aldis Hodge: (laughs) I’ll say this, there were some days where I was exhausted mostly because of the repetition of being in a confining situation – I think you might understand what I’m talking about when you see the film. And then there was that one day… we shot at a real jail and there was one day that I was in my cell and the door locked and they couldn’t get it open. I had to sit there for a minute, and that’s where it really hits you like you can’t go nowhere. You’re just stuck. That sense of entrapment and that isolation, I’m not even claustrophobic but I said ‘Oh My God’. So that was probably the wildest day. But you know at the end of the day, I still knew I was going home so I wasn’t terrified. If anything, it made me feel more grateful.
The Knockturnal: What’s one thing or message that you want the audience to take away after watching this film?
Aldis Hodge: I try not to impose upon the audience my own beliefs just because I think it’s selfish and biased and irresponsible of me. However, I’m going to say it because I don’t care. I hope that people come out of this with a renewed sense of empathy, in terms of how we deal with people. My challenge for my character was to figure out how to play a human being and I didn’t want people to see him as a criminal. I wanted them to see a man before his situation and see if you can recognize and identify with that human being and maybe see some familiarities. So before you judge, empathize first. We can stand to reason. Many times people judge based off the idea of something before having actually explored or engaged with that thing, so their information is wrong. And that’s how dangerous things happen, assumptions based off of fear. So I just hope people engage a little bit more with empathy and patience when engaging with others.
Director, Chinonye Chukwu
The Knockturnal: What made you want to tell this story? And make sure that this film got made.
Chinonye Chukwu: I mean I was really inspired the morning after Troy Davis was executed in 2011. Leading up to his execution, there were hundreds and thousands of protestors – and that really helped to galvanize my interest and my activism. Before that I knew nothing about the prison system or capital punishment, until the morning after he was executed – I was really obsessed with the question of – what must it be like for your livelihood to be tied to the taking of human life. And so in 2013 is when I decided to commit my life to really advocating for people/humanities that are tied to incarceration and to making this film.
The Knockturnal: What gravitated you towards this script?
Alfre Woodard: Not only did I not know these people’s stories, I never thought of their point of view. They weren’t on my radar, and I figured that if they weren’t on my radar then they weren’t on many Americans’ radars.
The Knockturnal: What’s one message that you want the audience to leave with after watching this film?
Alfre Woodard: I never work and even when I’m done, with an expectation for the audience. My job is just to do as fully and as honest of a portrayal as possible. Everybody is different, so they’re all going to receive it individually, in different ways. But I trust them and their free will, I respect that as adults. So I’m going to tell you a story and now it’s your story, and so you do whatever you feel moved to do.
Producer, Bronwyn Cornelius
The Knockturnal: What gravitated you towards this project and what motivated and pushed you to make sure this film got made?
Bronwyn Cornelius: There are so many things that drew me to the project which are are really a lot of the challenges of the project, but also things that I found were incredibly important. First you had a young, black, female writer/director and having that perspective and just launching new storytellers is very important to me – as a supporter of female filmmakers. In addition, having a Black female lead, and particularly a Black female lead of a certain age portrayed on screen, was incredibly important to me. And then also the fact that we have this social impact story. We have a story about the justice system and about death row – that I certainly have never seen. It was a story that made me when I read it, stop and think like “wow I never thought about that”. How is it that we can ask these people to carry out these state sanctioned murders on our behalf and what is the impact on them? And it’s not sort of considering the humanity of everybody involved in the system – embarrassingly, I have never stopped to think about that. In addition to that, something that sort of shined a light on the justice system, in a way that we have not yet seen — so it checked an awful lot of boxes. The intention in working with writer/director Chinonye Chukwu was the passion and the importance of creating a piece that can be utilized as a tool to prompt conversations, and get us as a society starting to think about this issue.