For the first time in Sundance’s history, a black woman has taken home the film festival’s Grand Jury Prize. Nigerian-American filmmaker Chinonye Chukwu earned the top spot in the U.S. Dramatic category for her film Clemency, a death row drama about a female prison warden struggling with the emotional rigors of her job.
Chukwu was inspired to write this story after Troy Davis’ tragic and controversial 2011 execution. She spent the next four years doing research, telling Shadow and Act that she met “with many wardens and retired wardens, and various corrections staff and executive staff, and lawyers, and men and women, and people who were incarcerated. They all informed my kind of creation of the characters, my building and my writing of the characters, and my approach to how to portray them.”
Many Sundance attendees took to Twitter to praise the film, including Ava DuVernay, who was the first black woman to win a Sundance directing award for her 2012 film Middle of Nowhere.
The film is currently seeking U.S. distribution so that the rest of us can see this powerful story. Chukwu is optimistic and wrote on Instagram, “I am thankful for the Sundance platform and can’t wait to share my film with the world!”
This year is already historic for women at Sundance. According to Indiewire, 56 percent of all directors in the U.S. Dramatic Feature category were women and all four of the Grand Jury Prize winners were women. Deadline reports that Chukwu’s next job is directing the film adaption of former Black Panther leader Elaine Brown’s memoir, A Taste of Power.