AFI Movie Club: CLEMENCY – American Film Institute



CLEMENCY brings light to the dark reality of death row, starring AFI Honorary Degree recipient Alfre Woodard as a conflicted prison warden. The film screened at AFI FEST 2019 presented by Audi and was directed by Chinonye Chukwu – a former Faculty member of the AFI Conservatory.

Watch Alfre Woodard discuss recognizing the humanity in playing a prison warden in CLEMENCY at AFI FEST 2019.

Movie Trivia about TODAY’S FILM


The film was inspired by the 2011 execution of real-life death row inmate Troy Davis who proclaimed his innocence to the end. One of the prime motivations for Chinonye Chukwu’s script was an unprecedented open letter that six former prison wardens had written as a plea to halt the execution of Davis.


Director Chinonye Chukwu’s extensive research process for the film included talking to retired wardens and directors of corrections, people who had been incarcerated, lawyers, chaplains, activists and organizers.


Director Chinonye Chukwu filmed CLEMENCY over the course of only17 days in a former jail in East Los Angeles.


As part of her passion for activism, director Chinonye Chukwu created a film program in a women’s prison in Dayton, OH, where she taught incarcerated women how to make their own short films.


Chinonye Chukwu first met Alfre Woodard when they were both working on a clemency appeal for Tyra Patterson, who was wrongly convicted of murder and eventually released after 23 years.


Oscar®-nominated and Emmy Award®-winning actress Alfre Woodard was attached to the role of Bernadine Williams in CLEMENCY for two years before the film even entered pre-production. To prepare for the part, she visited several prisons and talked with female wardens about their experiences.


It was Aldis Hodge’s work on UNDERGROUND, in which he conveyed so much without words, that prompted Chinonye Chukwu to offer him the role of death row inmate Anthony Woods in CLEMENCY. To prepare for the part, Hodge took a tour of San Quentin and was shown the execution chamber and the machine used to administer lethal injection.


The production flew in a former warden to help with the blocking for the execution scenes. Director Chinonye Chukwu said, “I was really committed to getting this as authentic as possible, but also involving the very community of people who I was representing as much as possible.”


Shooting the execution scene was so intense that two background actors tasked with strapping down the “prisoner” couldn’t go through with it and had to be replaced.


CLEMENCY premiered at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival and received the festival’s top honor, the Grand Jury Prize in the storied U.S. Dramatic section. Director Chinonye Chukwu made history by being the first Black female director to ever win the award.


Upcoming projects for Chinonye Chukwu include directing episodes of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s long-awaited TV adaptation of AMERICANAH, starring Lupita Nyong’o, and the biopic of Elaine Brown, about the first and only woman to chair the Black Panther Party.

The movie doesn’t end at the credits: Family-friendly Discussion Questions

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-What is it like for Bernadine to have her livelihood be tied to the taking of human life? How does her professional life take a toll on her personal life?

-How are real-life prison wardens effected emotionally and psychologically? Statistically, they often suffer from PTSD comparable to Army veterans. How do you think they compartmentalize their lives?

-What did you think of Alfre Woodard’s performance as prison warden Bernadine Williams?

-Do you believe in the death penalty? Why or why not?  Should taxpayer money be used to this end?

-How does a film like CLEMENCY, centered around a black female warden, differ from other films of its ilk, such as DEAD MAN WALKING and THE GREEN MILE? Why is that perspective important?

-What did you learn about the lives of prison wardens that you might not have considered before?

-The Unites States incarcerates more of its citizens – 2.2 million people – than any other country on earth. What has led to the prison-industrial complex in the U.S.?

-African American adults are nearly six times more likely to receive a prison sentence than white adults in the U.S. Nearly half of the 206,000 people serving life sentences in 2018 were Black, though they represent only 13.4% of the population. What factors has led to this discrepancy?

-Do we as a society have the right to take the lives of those who have taken life?

-Do you believe in the idea of “clemency”? Why or why not?

-How would you rate CLEMENCY?

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Comments (1)

Anthony Zure

The inmate puts themselves in the execution chamber as a result of their bad decisions.

A good warden responsible for carrying out the execution doesn’t let the inmate problems become his problem. The warden’s duty is to ensure the inmate is treated fairly and humanely by the staff prior to and during the execution.

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