Clemency star Alfre Woodard plays a warden in the death-row drama, and visited condemned men on death row as part of her research. “It was the most humbling experience I’ve ever had in my life,” Woodard says on the new MovieMaker Interviews podcast.
Woodard was able to gain access to death row because the film’s director, Chinonye Chukwu, worked for years with Ohio inmates and volunteered on a clemency case. She said two men volunteered to speak with her and Chukwu, deep in the bowels of the prison, as two guards looked on.
“You just have to kiss yourself up to God. Anything can happen,” Woodard says.
But what struck her wasn’t that the condemned men seemed dangerous, or scary. She was moved by their vulnerability, and how far they seemed from the crimes of which they were convicted. The men seemed most concerned about their daughters, and the decisions they were making with men.
“They were almost docile in a way,” she said. “Both those men accepted responsibility for what had happened, what they had been involved in. But also as you talk, you saw the damaged boy in them. You remember that boy in your class, when it started with ‘Go to the principal.’ You knew when they couldn’t read up to standards in the third grade, so they cut up in class maybe. And you know when they drop out.”
Clemency avoids the cliches of death-penalty films in favor of a nuanced and honest look at the fundamental problems with it. The film doesn’t preach. It doesn’t need to.
“Every time we do it, it puts a stain on our soul as a culture, as a nation,” Woodard says. “Especially a nation where we call ourselves a nation of faith. It’s a breach for everybody.”
This episode of MovieMaker Interviews is devoted entirely to Clemency: It also features an interview with Chukwu, and with Aldis Hodge, who plays a man condemned to die.
You can listen on your favorite platform below:
Here are highlights of the episode, with timestamps:
1:15: Alfre Woodard interview begins
1:27: She explains why so many wardens come from the fields of mental health or social work.
4:15: “Every time we do it, it puts a stain on our soul as a culture, as a nation. Especially a nation where we call ourselves a nation of faith. … It’s a breach for everybody.”
8:25: Alfre Woodard on meeting death row inmates in her research for the film: “It was the most humbling experience I’ve ever had in my life.”
11:01: “You just have to kiss yourself up to God. Anything can happen.”
15:48: Chinonye Chukwu interview begins.16:30: “Regardless of innocence or guilt, do we as a society have a right to kill?”
18:03: “I don’t need to justify his humanity. … I really tasked myself to craft a narrative where we don’t really know if this person’s innocent or guilty and we don’t know very much about his past. We are just staying with him in the present.”
20:15: Why she chose to cast black actors as both the warden and the inmate: “I thought that if the warden is white and the person on death row is black, then the racial dynamics become the narrative, and not an interrogation of the prison space and the practice of capital punishment and the system of incarceration.”
20:50: How she captured the feeling of the prison.
23:38: We talk about witnessing an actual execution.
30:00: We discuss the Golden Globes not nominating any female filmmakers in the best directing categories.
31:45: “We all should support the films that don’t get supported by these structures and entities.”
33:32: “We have to be willing to use our privileges and access for those who aren’t as privileged. And sometimes it is sacrifice but that’s what we have to do sometimes in order to move forward.”
34:00: CLEMENCY SPOILERS FOLLOW.
35:00: Aldis Hodge interview begins.
35:35: “It’s not about him committing a crime. It’s about us as a society feeling justified to commit a crime that we shroud in the identity of true justice.”
41:02: Audio quality improves thanks to a microphone switch. Thanks for your patience.
42:38: “I want art to be part of the progressive conversation.”
45:00: We talk about Aldis Hodge’s watchmaking, and why he’s pursuing it.
Clemency is now in theaters.