'Clemency' encourages empathy for death row inmates

By Fred Topel
Aldis Hodge plays death row inmate Anthony Woods in "Clemency." File Photo by John Angelillo/UPI | <a href="/News_Photos/lp/05a24d515a5db9667b8e8bc5f5467293/" target="_blank">License Photo</a>
Aldis Hodge plays death row inmate Anthony Woods in "Clemency." File Photo by John Angelillo/UPI | License Photo

LOS ANGELES, Dec. 24 (UPI) -- Chinonye Chukwu wrote and directed the film Clemency as a plea for compassion for death row inmates. Her film stars Alfre Woodard as death row warden Bernadine Williams and never confirms whether her inmates are guilty of their crimes.

"Our ability to care and have compassion for those who are convicted and on death row shouldn't be contingent upon knowing whether or not they're innocent or guilty or the nature of their crime," Chukwu told UPI.


The central inmate in the film is Anthony Woods (Aldis Hodge). He faces lethal injection for killing a police officer, but the film does not deal with the specifics of his case.

"My ambition for this film is the potential it has to really open people's minds and open people's eyes the way it opened mine," Hodge said during the same interview. "I want them to understand and know on a real visceral level what it means and what it feels like for somebody."


Clemency depicts the protocol of executions and the toll it has taken on Bernadine over the years. Even though Hodge was acting, but it still felt real, especially being strapped to the injection table.

"You can't escape it," Hodge said. "You can't help but think about the men and women who have to go through this on a regular basis from all sides, the people who have to administer and the people who are being strapped down. The more real it got, the more serious it got, the more excited and ambitious I got about it."

Some of the protocols are merely procedural. In one scene, the administrators explain to Anthony the step-by-step process that will occur on the day of his execution.

"The first take you cried and the second take is when we decided that we're going to try a take where you actively try not to cry," Chukwu revealed. "It was just a small adjustment that made all the change in the world."

The second take ended up in the film.

"I have definitely never had somebody telling me how I'm going to die," Hodge said. "Most of us never have had that experience, so what is that really like? That means looking at all the things you're going to miss out on, all the things, all the hopes and dreams. I wanted the audience to really see that thought pattern happen physically on someone's face."


A more volatile scene occurs when Anthony begins to bang his head against the cell wall. The camera angle allowed Hodge to simulate Anthony's self-harm without him actually making contact, but he went too far one take. Hodge accepted responsibility for that.

"I just said, 'That is the take y'all better use because if y'all don't use that take, it don't get more real than that,'" Hodge said. "When I'm sitting in the hospital bed, there's an actual knot on my head. That was not makeup."

Hodge said it was worth it because that scene gives the audience a visceral reaction.

"I love watching that scene the most with audiences because I know exactly how they're going to respond," Hodge said. "They respond the same way every time. You hear this resounding 'ooh, ah, ooh' in the theater. I'm just like, 'Yay.'"

Chukwu found an abandoned jail in which to film Clemency. She felt the drab location added to the film's authenticity.

"It looked like they just left it alone and just let it sit for years because the walls were still cracked," she said. "You could still see the griminess in Anthony's jail cell. It was disgusting, and I think that all added to the textures of the space. It was necessary."


The location assisted Hodge's performance, too.

"You're not going to get the same production value from building it up on a soundstage and faking it," he said. "We need that because it helps build in our world for what we're playing and everything is real so you can't escape that when it comes to your performance."

The location made cinematography challenging. Cinematographer Eric Branco worked to make the plain beige rooms and decrepit cells visually interesting.

"We also use framing and composition choices," Chukwu said. "Shooting scenes in wide takes and having symmetrical composition really made the frames that much more interesting."

The scenes of the executions were constructed on soundstages.

"We were able to manipulate the light there with overhead lighting," she said. "Eric and his unit were phenomenal in rigging all the lights and figuring out shadows and all of that."

Clemency opens Friday.

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