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On January 9, 2020, the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) announced the nominees for its 51st NAACP Image Awards. Chinonye Chukwu’s Clemency has been selected to compete at this year’s NAACP Image Awards for Outstanding Independent Motion Picture, alongside Queen & Slim and The Boy Who Harnessed The Wind. The winners will be announced on February 22, 2020. Chinonye is a Nigerian-American film director (born in Port-Harcourt), best known for the drama film Clemency. The NAACP Image Award is a prize presented by the NAACP to ‘honor outstanding performances in film, television, music, and literature.’ 

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In 2012, Ava DuVernay became the first black woman to win a directing award at the annual Sundance festival, for her feature film, “Middle of Nowhere.” The film – a hard and complicated take on the complexities of love and relationships – was written, directed, and partly produced by Ava Duvernay.

But in 2019, Chinonye Chukwu became the first black woman to win the Sundance Festival’s biggest prize: the U.S. Dramatic Grand Jury Prize. It was Clemency that won Chinonye the Grand Jury Prize at the 2019 Sundance Festival. The film features Alfre Woodard as a seasoned and wearied death row warden, a woman so burdened by her task that the weight begins to have psychological and emotional effects. One critic described the film as ‘austere and resonant’, a drama that ‘roots itself in a vivid, pain-wracked, soul-tired main character and still manages to get its message across without preaching.’

It took Chinonye Chukwu a few years to research Clemency. The film focuses on the mental and emotional struggles of a death row prison warden who is beginning to question the morality of death sentences. Chinonye knew nothing of the prison system before the idea for the film came to her, so she spent time reading books, talking to people, volunteering on clemency cases, and teaching in prisons.

When asked in an interview with NPR (an independent, non-profit organization) why her research took so long, and why she chose to tell a story from the warden’s perspective rather than the accused, Chinonye explained:

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“I was really moved to tell this story the morning after Troy Davis was executed in September, 2011. As I was navigating my own feelings of anger and frustration and sadness over his execution, I just kept thinking about those wardens and those emotional, psychological consequences they spoke to and just asked myself, what must it be like for your livelihood to be tied to the taking of human life? If I was navigating all these complexities of emotions, what about the people who were sanctioned to carry out the execution? And being obsessed with that question is really what led me to my years of research and advocacy work.”

Clemency in criminal justice is the extension of mercy by an executive member of the government to a convict. Watch the trailer for Chinonye’s Clemency film below. The film was released in US cinemas on the 27th of December 2019. 


Common Sense Media

Black Women Directors


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Indie Wire

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This article was first published on 31st January 2020


Tochi Onwubiko is a 'Jack' of many trades. A designer, book editor, lawyer and happy freelance writer. She enjoys drinking tea, sitting in quiet spaces, and reading thick books. She hopes to publish books one day. She also loves a good house party. If you know about any good books or parties, leave a comment on one of her posts.

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