"On my first feature, which was made eons ago, I didn't have a grasp on visual language. I didn't have a command of my voice," says writer-director Chinonye Chukwu of her debut, the 2012 drama alaskaLand. "I was still trying to figure sh*t out, directorially."
The Nigerian-born, Alaska-raised filmmaker broke out with her sophomore feature, Clemency, a searing character study of a prison warden (Alfre Woodard) in the days leading up to the execution of one of her inmates. The film premiered at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival and won the U.S. Dramatic Grand Jury Prize, with Chukwu becoming the first Black woman to receive the award.
"Clemency is when I felt like I really came into myself and my confidence and allowed myself to explore cinematic techniques with some intentionality," she reflects. "With Till, I felt even more confident and in command of my directorial vision and an even stronger clarity about my directorial vision."
Till, her latest, tells the story of Mamie Till-Mobley (played in the film by Danielle Deadwyler) and her relentless pursuit of justice for her 14-year-old son, Emmett Till, who was brutally lynched in 1955 while visiting family in Mississippi. "Every film I make, I want to be a little scared," Chukwu says, "because I want to continue to expand and challenge myself as a filmmaker, and I never want to do the same kind of film twice."
"Looking forward, I want to explore different cinematic techniques and different genres and really push and expand myself in that way," she continues. "When I look at the trajectory of my filmmaking catalog, even including my short films and work I did in film school on to today, I'm really proud that there's been consistent evolution, growth and expansion and also curiosity in my directing."
Below, Chukwu shares with A.frame the five films that have most inspired her own filmmaking.
Directed by: Béla Tarr | Written by: László Krasznahorkai and Béla Tarr
Béla Tarr is a master of the long take. I was introduced to the film years ago, and it started with a friend of mine sharing with me a clip from it. It was a seven-minute long take through this health facility, and the emotional and narrative progression, the movement through spaces, the pacing of it, it really wowed me. The whole movie is just masterful in how it uses the long take to advance the narrative. I really have been inspired by that when constructing my own long takes in my films.
Directed by: Federico Fellini | Written by: Federico Fellini, Tullio Pinelli, Ennio Flaiano and Brunello Rondi
It's one of my absolute favorite films and completely and totally expanded my mind as a filmmaker. I watched 8½ for the first time early on in my film school days, years and years ago, and it blew my mind for so many reasons. Because it expanded the possibilities for me for what you can do with cinematic language, with cinematic form — the long takes, the depth of field, the foreground, mid-ground, background relationships, the movement through spaces. It blew my mind! I remember, like it was yesterday, the first time I watched it. I'm like, "Oh, you can do this with cinema?!" I watch 8½ at least once a year since then, just to get inspired again. It just blew my mind. And I would say all of Fellini's catalog is just delicious.
Directed by: Steve McQueen | Written by: Enda Walsh and Steve McQueen
Another one of my favorites. Steve McQueen, as a filmmaker, as an auteur in general, is such an inspiration. He also uses long takes, but his intentionality behind his framing and composition and use of stillness in Hunger and silences being an aesthetic choice, that has always inspired me. Hunger was a direct inspiration for me when I made Clemency.
Particularly, because a lot of that film takes place in a prison and so silence as an aesthetic choice and the use of negative space was something that I was really inspired by. The stillness of it and the experience of time in a prison space in that film is something that really inspired me when thinking about how I'm going to represent time and stillness in the prison that Clemency took place in.
Where to Watch: The Criterion Channel
Directed and written by: Jean-Luc Godard
Rest in peace, Jean-Luc Godard! His boldness is amazing. But I remember vividly watching this film for the very first time when I was in film school, and I was blown away by the relationship between sound and picture, particularly in the first five minutes of that film. It just blew my mind. The boldness in having an entire scene in a café, and you don't see the faces of the main characters in the scene. The entire scene! The use of silences in that film, but more importantly, the sound-picture relationship is definitely something that I lean into to this day with all my films. It really got me thinking about the relationship between sound and picture and the seen versus the unseen. That's something that has inspired my work, particularly with Till and Clemency. What is seen versus what is not seen?
Directed by: Martin Scorsese | Written by: William Monahan
The Departed is a more contemporary example of a film that has really inspired me. Isn't that such a great film? First of all, the writing is delicious! The way that the narrative builds tension and it goes between these two characters, but then especially in the third act, the tension between the two as they get closer and closer to physically connecting with each other is delicious. The fast-paced camera movement, the cutting, it's invigorating. It's exciting. I can't tell you how many times I've watched that movie. I just rewatched it, like, two weeks ago. There's always something to discover there. But the editing, the storytelling, the fast-paced camera movements, and the way that they were able to create tension all inspire me to this day.