Clemency, the 2019 film directed and written by Chinonye Chukwu, is a masterwork. It centers on the life of Bernadine Williams (played by the marvelous Alfre Woodard), a death row warden facing her 12th execution — that of Anthony Woods (a striking performance by Aldis Hodge). Clemency is a film of utmost precision, exploring what it means to facilitate state-sanctioned murder and the inevitable emotional fallout. When I originally reviewed the film, I wrote, “Above all else, Clemency is a supreme actors’ showcase, backed by a director of fine-tuned emotional intelligence and a cinematographer who understands the depth and beauty of black skin tones. […] The crown jewel of Clemency, however, is undoubtedly Alfre Woodard.” Woodard’s Bernadine is plagued by questions that, rather than spoken, are written into her slight shifts in posture, the bend of her brow, a hollowed gaze. It all builds to a nearly three-minute-long shot toward the film’s end, which holds onto Woodard’s face, a heart monitor soundtracking the tears rolling down her face. Over half a year after the film premiered, in the middle of a pandemic and a national reckoning over the American justice system, we spoke with Woodard about preparing for such an emotionally heavy film, the process of shooting the bravura final moments of the movie, and the ripple effects of institutionalized murder.
Let’s start with how you prepared for your performance in Clemency.
Well, I had the best preparation possible, because I signed up with a brilliant young filmmaker who actually changed her life to tell this story, Chinonye [Chukwu]. Chinonye worked in the prison system for over eight years. She taught screenwriting in women’s prisons in Ohio, so she was there. She worked on clemency cases.
She came to this story, our film, after Troy Davis was murdered by the state in Georgia. She had worked on his clemency case, and in trying to stop that execution, it was later revealed to her that a letter had been written by many — I wouldn’t say hundreds, but I would say over 100 death business personnel, wardens, deputies, majors, administrators, and guards, who were pleading to stay that execution on the grounds of what it did to the people who we charge with carrying out these executions. One of the things that I learned in my on-the-ground research was that the wardens pulled for that song to ring at the last minute just as hard as anybody — harder than anybody aside from the family whose loved one was being taken out.
One of the bonuses about being an actor is that it demands that you continue to learn — even if you’re seven, eight decades in. She took me on a prison tour. We went to about four prisons in Ohio: women’s medium security, men’s medium and maximum security. I met with about four wardens and the director of corrections for the state of Ohio. When I say met, I mean I had meals with these people. They really opened up and shared their experiences, because no one had ever talked about the pros and cons of the death penalty from the point of view of the people who have to carry it out.
While talking to different people about what happens on death row and immersing yourself in this world, was there anything you heard that surprised you?
Everything surprised me. Absolutely everything. Bronwyn Cornelius is our intrepid producer. She told me that she had this really gifted young filmmaker, a woman who wanted to bring forward the life of a prison warden. And I was wondering, Okay, well how do I fit into this story? She said, “You’re the warden.” I went, what? Because I had never thought of a woman as a prison warden. I had all these draconian images of what we’ve seen on film before, and I thought a prison warden must be a bit of a sadist. What is that? And what kind of little girl says that’s, you know, what I want to do? Once I take these ribbons out of my hair, I want to be a death row prison warden.
So what I learned right off — at least with the people I met: the wardens, he director of corrections, and a man who has put more people through the process than anybody in the world, who has been a warden in three of the most active death row states — was that people come to those positions from the mental-health professions. They come to it from social services or public-health administration. The women I met — they were all African American women — they would be in my book club or go to a church or a synagogue that you go to. They’re the type of people that you’d want in an emergency. Not me. Not an artist. Because we start either screaming or laughing depending on what the thing is that we’re reacting to.
But if you are someone who is trained and has experience working with people in traumatic or dire situations, it makes sense that you’re the person to oversee people who are enduring traumatic experience of being incarcerated, who have death hanging over them. If there is going to be a law that people are put to death in the state’s name with our money, then somebody is going to be doing that job. And I realized that who is doing that job matters a whole lot. Yes, we work to abolish it. Yes, we work toward more civilized ways of resolving our appeal system. And, frankly, we hope to get it right when we do. But is it reformation or is it just penalizing people?
Until we change that, then the kind of people that I met are the people that we want in charge.
How did you set out to establish the physicality of your character, Bernadine Williams? Because there’s a tension to it that I found very interesting.
Well, the women that I was meeting — one was a tiny bit more gregarious, but they tended to hold themselves well. There was a stillness about them. There was an openness, and there was a calm about them. So I was getting these cues about economy of movement. I took Bernadine to an economy of expression as well. Our story starts with her in a crisis situation. It’s her 12th execution, and, like they say, they wait for that phone to ring harder than anybody other than that condemned person’s family. Nobody wants to have to go through it. Because basically what you do is — after ten, 15 years — you turn to your office worker and say, “Bob, we’re going to have to kill you today.” Because that’s the person you see.
One of the most profound moments of the film is definitely the ending, which stays trained on your face. It’s such an audacious choice to be silent and just totally focused on the actor’s face. Can you talk about filming the ending? How many takes did you guys do?
Well, that was the only take, and it wasn’t really planned. We thought it would be somewhere else in the film. But when we tried to step it up and tried to make it happen, tried to shoot it, it wasn’t quite right. But we just kept going, shooting on our schedule. [Chinonye] knew that there was a moment, a Bernadine moment of abandon.
So what she did, unbeknownst to me, was she went to the person who had the next line — I think it was the medical person who’s administering, who says “call it” or whatever — and she said, “Don’t say anything until I cue you.” Then she was on my face. She let it roll. But let me tell you, as an actor, you should not be thinking that you’re acting in what’s going on or thinking technically. You are the person you’re inhabiting and bringing their voice forward. So there’s no moment that you stop being Angelica. You just keep doing it. Whatever just happens to you in a moment, in a day.
Once I find my character, then that’s all I can be. I’m not waiting for a cut. I’m not waiting for anything. I can’t tell you how solidly it places you as an actor to be in a death chamber that is the exact replica of where people go — where people have their lives taken ritualistically. It even has the charade of justice because there is a gallery watching. You pull the curtains back and let them say something: “Do you have any last words?” All of that, you can’t be sucked out of it as an actor, as an artist, as a creative person. That can’t be broken until somebody not only says cut, but puts their hand on you and says, “Okay, we got it.” Because you’ve gone there. [Chinonye] could’ve kept that camera rolling for another hour. If I’m Bernadine, I’m Bernadine.
[Chinonye] decided to close the film that way. We’d had another plan, but she realized that this was the moment she was looking for — it served the purpose of the whole storytelling.
What was it like working with Chinonye as a director, and how did this experience differ from others you’ve had in Hollywood?
Well, every experience is different if you have a good director. And I’ve had a lot of good directors. It’s like lovers. The experience is you’re making love, but they’re all really different. Filmmaking and being directed is the same way. And I’m not talking about the directors who are fine; I’m talking about the exceptional people. And she is one. She has her history; she is a Nigerian American woman, the daughter of grad students who — crazily enough —lived in Norman, Oklahoma. They were petroleum engineers at the University of Oklahoma. I also came from Oklahoma, from Tulsa, years before.
She spent her formative years in Norman — mind you, with Nigerian parents who were traditional, and so they were keeping that culture alive. But then she spent years in Alaska, of all places. In Alaska, from the ages of 8 to to 18, experiencing the culture there. Everything about her shaped the way that she looks at the world.
Aside from her skill and ability, Chinonye cackles and laughs so loudly. She is one of the most ridiculously joyous people. We lost a couple of guys who got triggered during our [shoot], even as we were just setting up and learning the protocol in our execution scene. Everybody on that set in every department … it was hard for them. It was very hard. But there’s Chinonye. She’d come in just full of brightness and energy every day and cackling. I know I kept myself away from her, because I had somewhere else to be during all this.
She is such a great collaborator; our trip together solidified our friendship for life. And it actually gave us a shorthand for working on set as well. I’ve been around; I don’t have to be told what to do. It’s good for me when a director who is younger than I am instinctively knows how to set a situation up and allow me to do what I instinctively know — what part of my skills to bring to a moment. So we had a good partnership that way. I’m usually excited about a person who some would call “not as experienced,” because that means that they don’t even know what the rules are. They don’t even know they’re breaking rules. And that’s the way every artist should work.
Can you talk about how you crafted Bernadine’s marriage with actor Wendell Pierce? Because that is very central to understanding her character.
Chinonye knew the statistics. The people who are putting others to death [on death row] suffer from PTSD commensurate with our troops who take multiple tours of duty in a war zone. If they’re married, they’re on multiple marriages. Family situations are blown apart. She knew that, and she wanted to use that marriage — that glimpse — to show where Bernadine was going at night, how it affected her life. Wendell and I both are way grown and have been in lots of grown relationships. I have been married for almost 40 years. Wendell and I, we would improvise and just talk. We came up with every moment of how they would be, to give it the reality that it needed to have.
That sounds like an amazing working experience. Okay, my final question before we get off the phone. It’s something you talked a little bit about at the beginning of our conversation, but I thought maybe you could expand on it: How do you feel this movie intersects with considerations we’re having right now about defunding the police and just taking stock of the racial discrimination intrinsic to the American justice system?
Well, we wanted people to be able to look at this film and have a conversation that they hadn’t had before, have a piece of information to put on the table of conversation. Yea or nay to state-sponsored murder — you can’t make a decision if you don’t have all of the components. And so this is something that we thought was missing. How it affects the people doing it. We wanted people to know: Even if you think you have nothing to do with it, if you paid your taxes, then you have something to do with it. Unless you’re one of those people who is signing petitions, writing letters, trying to stop it.
So it’s opening up a conversation about our criminal justice system. Right now, people have been working for decades trying to kick the doors open about the fact that our criminal justice system is just an industry. It is an industry for unpaid labor. It is not intended to rehabilitate anyone. It is intended to house and warehouse especially Black and brown bodies, but also poor white bodies and poor bodies of other colors. Because it at least started out for us, African Americans, as policing us on the continent. That’s how you kept slaves.
And so people don’t see how it just goes all the way up, through Jim Crow, through the decades, to where we are now — where they’re just housing people on cots in huge gymnasiums. The majority of the people are [incarcerated] for offenses that, if they were from the dominant culture — if they were Caucasian — they might have been slapped on the wrist for. “Boys will be boys,” or whatever. But we have here in California three strikes. You could steal a slice of pizza, break a window, and then punch somebody who punched you first, and then you’re put away for life. It is all those things.
If we had people responding to the vast number of police calls where people call in saying, “My neighbor is acting strangely, but it’s because he’s bipolar,” or: “My son is hallucinating, I’m not sure if it’s undiagnosed mental illness.” If you have a person who goes to that situation, who is trained, who is going to look at it from that perspective rather than somebody who is showing up like the Terminator to answer the call about a child who is basically freaking out. We want people to answer those calls [in a way] that increases the safety of our community, not increases the bloodshed and the trauma.