Nigeria’s Chinonye wins Sundance Film Festival’s biggest prize

Alaska-raised Nigerian filmmaker, Chinonye Chukwu, has made history as the first black woman to win the Sundance Film Festival’s biggest prize for her U.S. Dramatic entry, ‘Clemency’.

Her film, ‘Clemency’, a gripping death row drama starring Alfre Woodard as a prison warden struggling with the emotional demands of her job, won the Grand Jury Prize for 2019.

Ms Chukwu joins the likes of Desiree Akhavan, Ryan Coogler, Damien Chazelle, Rebecca Miller and many other big names that have won the Sundance Grand Jury Prize.

According to, she has also been tipped to direct ‘A Taste of Power’, an adaptation of former Black Panther leader Elaine Brown’s memoir, the first and only female leader to lead the Black Panther Party.

Chukwu both wrote and directed ‘Clemency’. She previously directed the 2012 drama, ‘AlaskaLand’, and has been directing short films since 2009.

This year’s other Grand Jury Prize winners include Nanfu Wang’s ‘One Child Nation’ (U.S. Documentary); Joanna Hogg’s ‘The Souvenir’ (World Dramatic), and Tamara Kotevska and Ljubomir Stefanov’s ‘Honeyland’ (World Documentary).

2018 winners boasted four female directors taking home the individual directing awards, including Sara Colangelo, Alexandria Bombach, Sandi Tan, and Isold Uggadottir.

Chinonye Chukwu currently teaches at the Wright State University in Dayton, Ohio. Her films, AlaskaLand, Bottom, and A Long Walk have won numerous awards at film festivals; and she was a recipient of the Princess Grace Award and the 2013 prestigious Princeton Hodder Fellowship.

Born in Port Harcourt, Rivers State, Nigeria, the youngest of four children, Chinonye’s parents emigrated to the United States when she was barely a year old.

She told she got her first inspiration watching Federica Fellini’s ‘8 ½’.

“I was literally at the edge of my seat watching it for the entire three-plus hours. I was captivated with every frame and I was like—wow you can do that.

“I had always known that I enjoyed stories, but I hadn’t been exposed to a lot of films that inspired me craft-wise. It really inspired me to engage with the craft of filmmaking opposed to just my love of filmmaking. It inspired me to be more intentional about my choices in that I actually have choices and I’m not just going off purely by instinct.”

Her parents wanted her to be a lawyer, doctor or engineer; but she loved writing.

She said of her journey into film writing and production: “I didn’t know what I was going to major in during undergrad [DePauw University], so I changed my major seven times until I finally settled on English because there was a script writing class in that programme.

“During this time, I was going through severe depression. It was a really dark time. Eventually, I was pushed up against a wall and had to make a choice: to float through this life existing by living by other people’s expectations or just go ahead and choose to embrace my life doing things on my terms. So I ripped up my law school applications and decided I was going to pursue this filmmaking thing that I always wanted to do.”

Her first big break came when she applied for and won the Princess Grace Foundation Grant worth $25,000, with a collection of films she had made in film school.

“I got the award and … it was like this $25,000 grant to make a film, but more importantly it was reaffirming. These are people who see potential in me. I got another grant from them years later. That was a big turning point. It propelled me into a more professional space. It opened doors for me a bit more from there on,” she told

Now she dreams of making a Nigerian sci-fi (science fiction) film that takes place in Nigeria.

But Chinonye doesn’t just love making films; she loves teaching the art as well.

“It’s the most transformative thing I’ve ever done; the most selfless thing I’ve ever done. It’s a form of activism for me. I can’t imagine making films without teaching. I can’t imagine teaching without making films. It’s like the perfect pairing. I get to include my students in my filmmaking journey,” she says.