On Death Row

Wendell Pierce is the Louisiana-born actor famed for playing Detective Bunk Moreland in The Wire. Recently, he was nominated for an Olivier Award for his turn as Willy Loman in a West End production of Death of a Salesman. And now he arrives in Clemency, a striking Death Row drama written and directed by Chinonye Chukwu. Pierce plays Jonathan, husband to Alfre Woodard’s warden, whose life overseeing executions has left her spent.

ASFF: Did Clemency feel powerful off the page when you first read it?
WP: Absolutely. It was the powerful writing of Chinoye, the director and writer. It was a perspective that hadn’t been seen before, this perspective of a warden in the midst of an execution. Those who are the perpetrators of a sick – personally, my belief – ritual of sanctioned death. And then also the uniqueness of it being a woman, and even the uniqueness of it being an African-American woman. So this script was so powerful in that way.

ASFF: The idea of a female African-American warden is actually based on reality, right?
The story came about because Chinoye was actually doing work in the prisons with a film class and met these women and so, as the adage goes, you write what you know. So I immediately wanted to do it. And independent cinema is usually where you find really fleshed-out, multi-dimensional rich stories and characters and this was just proof positive. The minute you read the script, and the minute the film opens, you realise how powerful the material is and will be.

ASFF: Partly seen through the prism of the relationship between your character Jonathan and your spouse, played by Alfre Woodard, the film shows how troubling such overseeing executions can be…
WP: It is emblematic of how infectious and insidious and corrupting this practice is of execution. We understand what it is from the perspective of the inmate. You can put yourself in those shoes and understand the fear of execution and the drive towards that and how barbaric it is. But how this practice infects humanity of everyone involved…you would never expect. The woman who was the warden, who is the magistrate in this position to say ‘This is how it’s going to be done’…[it shows] how her humanity is destroyed. And how infectious that is – like a virus – when she goes home, and it’s destroying her home life. It is such an insidious practice of destroying our humanity that every one it touches, it destroys a little piece of them. And that’s what’s reflected in our relationship falling apart.

ASFF: The film also shows how prisoners are left for years to languish on Death Row…
WP: It’s a psychological torture: Damocles’ sword hanging over your head, wondering when it’s going to fall. And I think part of that is some sadistic part of the nature of the legislation. Imprisonment is a punishment. It’s punitive. Especially if someone takes a life. To lose their freedom, to live a life, for me is a just punishment.

ASFF: You’re still best known for The Wire. How did it change your career?
WP:  It has given me an opportunity to come to London and do the Death of a Salesman. Put me in a position to be asked to be a part of Clemency and films like this. And to do some work that you seldom get to do; it puts you in a league. So The Wire was a very important to my career, a defining moment in my career, and always will be. And I’m dear friends with [creator] David Simon. Still to this day, I spoke to him last week!

Clemency is available to stream from 17 July. For more details, click here.

James Mottram