Alfre Woodard on ‘Opening Up a Conversation’ About Criminal Justice with Movie ‘Clemency’

*Alfre Woodard recently opened up about her acclaimed film “Clemency,” in which she stars as a death row warden facing her 12th execution.

Directed by Chinonye Chukwu , “Clemency” won the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival in 2019, making her the first Black woman to receive the honor.

Chukwu has now signed on to direct a new film about Emmett Till.

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.

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.

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.

Read Alfre’s full Vulture interview here.

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