Alfre Woodard‘s illustrious career adds an incredible new chapter named ‘Clemency.’
Directed by Chinonye Chukwu, the harrowing prison drama won the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival and deservingly so.
The film sees Woodard deliver a masterful performance as death row Warden Bernadine Williams.
Throughout its course, ‘Clemency’ hones in on the tall toll executions and their preceding moments take on Williams.
Central to the story is her interaction with a particular prisoner (played by Aldis Hodge), who maintains his innocence.
Ahead of the film’s UK release on July 17th, That Grape Juice‘s Samuel Eni caught up with the revered actress, who opened up about the role, the move towards equality in Black in Hollywood, advice for young creatives, and much more.
That Grape Juice: You’ve amassed an incredible body of work. What drew you to this role of Bernadine Williams?
Alfre Woodard: Well I grew up in Oklahoma, in Tulsa. And I had a very comfortable life, beyond comfortable. And I had a lot of love around me and support. My dad was just the first and the last man, he was an incredible human being. And your daddy can fetch you the moon, if you ask.
But I remember being, probably seven years old the first time they fried somebody. Because they used to electrocute you, barbarians that we are, they used to electrocute people and literally fry their brains. I remember hearing, “Oh, this person’s going to be put to death, electrocuted tonight at the state prison” and the kind of mood that it put my father and my mother in. And it was weird to think that there was something that affected us all, but we didn’t know the people. And that whole idea, it made me weep, I had a tendency to weep if I read in my weekly reader that 2,000 people died in a flood in India, it always affected me. And so, I just remembered it. And it happened a lot, every time that happened, I felt a sadness and a sickness that was new to my life. And I talked to my father about it, there’s nothing my father could do about it, it was one of those first times, “Well, this is how it is”.
And so, I have always been on the other end of the equation trying to stop executions, signing petitions, going to vigils, that sort of thing. Then Bronwyn Cornelius, our producer, put me and director Chinonye together, and she said that, “This is from the Warden’s point of view and you would be the warden”. And of course, my ears prick up, because I’m always interested in doing things that I don’t know how to do, and I had never heard of a woman warden.
It was important for me, sometimes getting to the truth, well, it should always involve the whole truth, but we didn’t have the whole truth. People here in The States have either been for the death penalty of against the death penalty for generations. But nobody had ever told the story of the people that we then say, “Okay, this is how we feel and you’re going to do it. We charged him to carry it out, you kill him”. Ten years later in the light of day in a ritualistic Christian ceremony you kill that person. So that was an adventure that needed to be taken and I was willing to put myself up to take it.
That Grape Juice: What are some of the key elements you feel people wanting to support Black Lives Matter can take away from seeing this film?
Alfre Woodard: Well, if people don’t know, the mass incarceration of black and brown bodies, I don’t know how you guys have it in the UK, but in The States, it is a horrific pandemic in itself. And it starts in our elementary schools, it starts when kids of color are told, “Sit down”, “be still”, “don’t do that”, “don’t move”, when it is physiologically impossible for little boys to be still, even up until 12 years old. And then that child gets branded, “Trouble”, “Impossible” and all. Anyway, it’s all those things. And then, by 3rd grade, because he’s constantly being sent out the room, he’s a troublemaker, he can’t read because he’s not in the class most of the time. And kids that can’t read by 3rd grade, they’re more apt to dropout by 10th grade. And then you’ve got that cradle to prison pipeline going.
Just the fact that, and many of us have recognized it and have been talking about it for years, but it’s hard to get people’s attention, especially in America. Because Americans, it’s such an individualistic society, we ran away from y’all, we ran away from the crown. The puritans were really whack. Screamed “religious freedom”, but they were whack.
So that whole thing of, “I, I, I” “Me, Me”, so when you appeal to an American, you have to appeal to their heart. You’ve got to show them a story about another individual and then they’re moved by it. They’re not moved by statistics.
And so anyway, what this moment, what this cosmically brutal murder of George Floyd did, Breonna being murdered in her house, in her sleep. This one, because it took eight minutes and forty-six seconds, just showed the depth of disregard, and the brutality that is visited upon black bodies since we set foot, brought to this continent in 1619. And it hasn’t abated one day, it’s never slowed down, every day, every year, all the way through to the present. But, this was no denying it. Human beings want to not think about it, “Don’t get involved”, that’s how we are as human beings. And so, as awful as that was, it thrust upon people, the reality of what we’ve been saying, the brutality against black and brown people, the mass incarceration. All of that is a picture, a connected jigsaw.
That Grape Juice: What do you feel the industry could be doing to level the playing field as relates to equal representation of Black talent?
Alfre Woodard: Well, you’ll know that in probably two weeks, because there is plotting and serious planning and planning by black people who know how every department, every aspect of the industry works. And there is a specific plan of a way forward. There is this opening, and we are going to lock our elbows against the opening and introduce this change that people, the alleged progressive Hollywood community, won’t just be able to say, “Yes, I believe black lives matter”, they will have to show it.
But again, that leaves people in the streets, let’s go to the streets. The Black Lives Matter movement, which contains hundreds of other organizations, hundreds of activists, hundreds of programs. So we say, “Black Lives Matter”, it’s like saying, “The sun came up from the east, today”. So, that is becoming mainstream, that’s the important thing. And that allows the conversation and movement and action around justice on all fronts.
That Grape Juice: What’s your advice for young Black talent looking to make it in the industry?
Alfre Woodard: I don’t know. I don’t know, because I came into the industry 47 years ago. And it is a different industry than when I came in, and it changes every few years. But one of the things that you guys have at your advantage is you have access to an audience that we never had. We had to, first of all the struggle was to get a certified agent, you couldn’t get an interview unless that certified agent sent you. That might take 10 years to get one. Then you had to talk to a mogul at a studio. Right now, you can write your content, do whatever you want to do, write your music and go online. So, you have access, you can tell your story to people in Tibet, sitting there in Brixton. So there’s been a democratization of access to the audiences.
The thing I want everybody to know, just because you have access, don’t short-change it. Whatever you do, “Excellence” is the by-word, train, practice, don’t work for likes, don’t work for money, don’t work for fabulousness, work to bring your song or your story for the healing of the nations, and you will always be successful.
That Grape Juice: Clemency won the dramatic Grand Jury Prize at Sundance, what are your ultimate hopes for the film moving forward?
Alfre Woodard: My hopes are that in every Cineplex, we don’t know when we’re going to get back to them. I want every household in every hamlet in America to watch this film, then it’s up to them. You put out a story and people receive it because everybody’s at different places in their personal journeys. I want every household in the UK to see it, I want households in France, in Germany, in Australia. Because you can bet your ass, wherever there are people of color, the same thing is being played out. So, y’all can say, “Oh, we’re not frying people anymore”, well, what are you doing to them? How are you killing the lives at the root of your black and brown people? How are you killing, at the root, the lives of the Muslim population if you are a Chinese citizen.
So, it’s everywhere in the world, because there are platforms that put stories everywhere, nobody’s off the hook. So, maybe you’re not lethally injecting people, but there is, and it’s so weird too, because people of color are the majority population in the world. Don’t let them wake up and move, just better hope that the hearts and the spiritual DNA that has been passed on by our ancestors, which is why we’ve survived, will appeal to the majority of colored people around the world when they are manning the ship.
That Grape Juice: You pick such interesting roles. What’s next for Alfre Woodard?
Alfre Woodard: Well, interestingly enough, Kevin Hart is more of a straight-laced man in it, but it’s impossible for him to play a total straight man, he’s hilarious. But there’s other guys in it that are just off the hook. And I play his mother-in-law, my daughter has– I don’t know if I want to give it away, let’s just say this, Kevin is in charge of a newborn baby and he won’t let his mother help and he won’t let me help, and it’s my grandbaby. He will make you weep, of course he’s going to make you guffaw. But it’s so touching and brilliant, it’s a side of Kevin Hart that as an actor, and he’s refining his chops as an actor, but it’s a side of him as a man that you wouldn’t expect him to be able to tap into. So, it’s great, it’s going to be a lot of fun, ‘Fatherhood.’
We’re also doing a Fannie Lou Hamer project. I call her the godmother of the American vote, she’s a sharecropper that started the Democratic Freedom Party in Mississippi. And she brought LBJ night terrors back in ’64 at the Democratic Convention.
We’re doing Juanita 2, have you seen Juanita? It’s on Netflix, everybody’s got to watch Juanita, because you think you know my work, but you don’t. I say, if you watch Clemency, and watch Juanita, then you’ve got an idea within the territory of which I operate.