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Chinonye Chukwu Becomes First Black Woman to Win Sundance Film Festival's Grand Jury Prize

Chinonye Chukwu Becomes First Black Woman to Win Sundance Film Festival's Grand Jury Prize

Photo: Getty Images 

The Sundance Film Festival annually honors International independent filmmakers who have crafted dramatic and documentary-style short and feature films. During its 2019 festival in Park City, Utah, visionary storyteller Chinonye Chukwu made history and became the first Black woman to win the festival’s highest award. 

Chukwu’s film "Clemency" earned the U.S. Grand Jury Prize, Dramatic, which was one of the Grand Jury Prize awards voted upon by an individual jury of distinguished film critics and film industry professionals. Other award categories included (but were not limited to): U.S. Grand Jury Prize, Documentary, U.S. Dramatic Directing Award, World Cinema Grand Jury Prize, and Producers Award

"Clemency" chronicles the story of a female prison warden, played by award-winning actress Alfre Woodard, as she struggles with the emotional turmoil of having to enforce processes of capital punishment on inmates and the toll it takes on her mental health and overall humanity.

Photo: Paul Sarkis 

IndieWire’s Eric Kohn shared: “Alfre Woodard embodies the extraordinary challenges of a woman tasked with sending men to their death, while bottling up her emotions so tight she looks as if she might blow. Writer-director Chinonye Chukwu’s second feature maintains the quiet, steady rhythms of a woman so consumed by her routine that by the end of the opening credits, it appears to have consumed her humanity as well.”

Chukwu both wrote and directed "Clemency" and has been directing short films since 2009. In 2012 she directed "AlaskaLand," a dramatic tale of two Nigerian-born yet Alaskan-raised siblings who were separated after a tragic accident only to reunite years later to make sense of cultural disconnections and commonality that they now feel towards one another. The film ultimately premiered at the 2012 Run and Shoot Filmworks Martha’s Vineyard African American Film Festival and was positively received. In addition, the year 2012 also became a pivotal year when the Sundance Film Festival awarded director Ava DuVernay, who became the first Black woman to win a directing award for her film "Middle of Nowhere."

Past Grand Jury Prize winners include “Black Panther” director, Ryan Coogler, Iranian-American and acclaimed story teller of queer women experiences, Desiree Akhavan, and Academy Award winning director of “La La Land” Damien Chazelle.

This year, 46% of the competing films up for Sundance Festival awards were directed by women. Chukwu, amongst other talented women filmmakers, have broken down numerous barriers for women in the film industry who simply want their voices not only heard, but also acknowledged and appreciated.

Chukwu wrote on Instagram: "I am thankful for the Sundance platform and can’t wait to share my film with the world!"

We can’t wait either! Congratulations, Chinonye!