To see the precision with which Alfre Woodard commands the screen in Chinonye Chukwu’s second feature film, Clemency, one would assume that her character, Bernadine Williams, was based on a real-life individual. And given that capital punishment has been prominent in the headlines this past year, thanks to films such as Just Mercy and real-life cases like that of Cyntoia Brown, it would also be easy to peg Chukwu’s Sundance favorite to be another reimagining of a true story.
Those assumptions would be wrong, however, because even though Chukwu conducted ample research prior to the making of the film, Bernadine herself is a composite of the many wardens and directors of corrections that Chukwu interviewed over the course of her research.
“I went to prisons around the country and spoke to…wardens and lawyers and men who were exonerated from death row, men who were on death row,” Chukwu told The Undefeated. “I asked them to read my script, and they ripped it apart completely. I also created a film program in a women’s prison…where I [taught] incarcerated women to make their own short films. And all of that clearly informed every draft at my directorial approach, and really grounded it in a level of reality and humanity and, hopefully, authenticity.”
In the film, Woodard portrays the fictional warden as a stoic woman who initially appears to be devoid of emotion, exacting in her cool demeanor when she is dealing with lawyers, inmates, and employees. Her hard shell begins to fracture, however, following the bungling of her 12th execution, and her very human connection to her impending 13th case, an introspective inmate named Anthony Woods (Aldis Hodge).
Hodge’s character, by contrast, is based on a real-life prisoner. Chukwu has previously spoken about her interest in the case of Troy Davis, a Georgian man who was executed back in 2011, and how it was the initial inspiration behind the making of the film. Davis was convicted of the 1989 murder of police officer Mark MacPhail, though he maintained his innocence until his execution; public figures as wide-ranging as former President Jimmy Carter, Desmond Tutu, and Pope Benedict XVI all spoke out on behalf of Davis to appeal his case.
“From the morning after Troy Davis was executed, I asked myself, if so many of us were navigating these complex emotions surrounding his execution — frustration, anger, sadness — what must it be like for the people whose livelihoods are tied to taking human life?” Chukwu previously told Vanity Fair. “I knew at that moment I really wanted to explore the emotional and psychological complexities of the prison staff, particularly a warden.”