When she ambled around Temple University as a graduate film student a decade ago, you would not see Chinonye Chukwu in a crimson Alexander McQueen jacket, skirt, and belt, and Manolo Blahnik boots.
But that’s how you see her in the December issue of Vogue, the kind of magazine layout that comes with the territory when your career is as red-hot as that outfit.
Chukwu’s new movie Clemency opens here Jan. 17, and the day before, she will host a 7 p.m. screening of the film (followed by a Q&A) at the Ritz Five, packed with friends and mentors from her days at Temple, where she presented a rather more modest fashion profile.
“I’m sure my professors are looking at that photo and thinking, what the….?” said a laughing Chukwu, who completed her master’s in film in 2010.
Temple and Philadelphia, she said, were crucial to her development as a person and as a filmmaker, which reached a new level this year when she became the first black woman director to win the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance, for Clemency, the intense drama of a death row prison warden (Alfre Woodard) slowly unraveling under the inhuman pressure of preparing condemned men, including one played by Aldis Hodge, for lethal injection.
The film missed out on an Oscar nomination, but has earned Independent Spirit Awards for both Chukwu (writer), Woodard (actress), and another for best picture.
Chukwu was still trying to figure herself out as a person and as an artist when, at Temple, she made the pragmatic but ultimately life-changing decision to take a teaching job to help pay the bills during grad school.
“I can honestly say that nothing helped me develop my craft, and get me focused, like helping young people do something they’d never done before,” said Chukwu, who taught a few screenwriting classes, but also (as a teaching assistant) some elementary school kids at now-defunct Joseph C. Ferguson in North Philly.
“My first semester there, a lot of them tested me, and I almost quit. I said I don’t think I can do this. But I realized they were pushing me away because they actually wanted me to stay, particularly the black girls, because they saw themselves in me. And during that initial teaching experience, I realized for the first time that I was living for more than just myself. And that helped me look at my work and the world in a new way,” said Chukwu, who was born in Nigeria and followed her oil-industry parents to Alaska before going to college in Chicago and finally to Temple.
She looked into the wider world for stories, and became transfixed by the 2011 execution of Georgia inmate Troy Davis, a case that led her to do intensive research on the reality of death row. In the months and years to come, she interviewed wardens and workers, and came to see that the job of preparing men for death, and killing them at the behest of the state, had taken a severe toll on so many. She knew wardens who quit or retired and joined the ranks of death penalty protesters outside prisons.
All this was folded into the character of Bernadine (Woodard), who in Clemency has supervised the executions of 11 men with a by-the-book bureaucratic efficiency and practiced stoicism that conceals a growing inner moral and psychological turbulence.
Though Chukwu had a few indie films under her belt (not then a McQueen), the Clemency script was a hard sell, particularly since Chukwu insisted on the warden being a black woman, as she had written her.
“Everybody loved the script but they either wanted the protagonist not to be a black woman, or they found the subject matter too" commercially risky, said Chukwu, who shopped around for more than three years with Woodard attached before finding a Malaysian company looking to make its first U.S. feature.
Even then, she worked with a budget that gave her a scant 17 days to shoot. Still, Chukwu was thrilled for a chance, at last, to make the movie that matched her vision, without compromise.
“That wouldn’t have been the film that I wanted to make,” Chukwu said. “And I think it adds such a layer of complexity to see a black woman in that role, with Bernadine’s authority, with her incredible challenges, [who is] not defined by a [domestic] relationship or the emotional needs of a man. Not Mammy-fied."
Changing the race or gender of the warden, she said, would have changed the movie in important ways. Also, she wanted to place the audience in unusual cinematic territory, in the company of “a black female protagonist who’s capable of taking life.”
Chukwu is hustling around the country helping to roll out Clemency to a wider audience, but she’s also hard at work on new projects. Chukwu has just signed to direct the first two episodes of the 10-part HBO series Americanah, based on the novel by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, which tells the story of a Nigerian woman (Oscar winner Lupita Nyong’o) who immigrates to America.
She’s also working on a biography of Elaine Brown — another Temple student, raised in Philadelphia (she graduated from Girls’ High), and the first women to lead the Black Panthers, from 1974 to 1977, experiences recounted in her memoir A Taste of Power.
Brown now lives in California, where Chukwu tracked her down to get permission to proceed with the project.
“Look, I wouldn’t do this project unless she looked me in my face and said yes. So I met with her, and that was an epic meeting. It went on for nine hours, and it was great, and at the end of the nine hours I had her blessing. I wrote the script and that’s all I can say for now. But things are moving, and it’s exciting.”