‘Clemency’ Star Aldis Hodge: Inside the Year’s Most Underrated, Heartbreaking Acting Performance
Aldis Hodge talks playing a death row inmate in “Clemency” and his 30-year pursuit of being seen as a leading man: Hollywood’s “idea of black is so far off from what the truth is.”
The best acting in a movie this year is in Clemency.
Alfre Woodard gives a towering, career-defining performance as a prison warden struggling with the burden of overseeing death row executions, especially after becoming close to an inmate desperately pursuing a clemency appeal and pleading his innocence. Danielle Brooks plays a woman from his past, who arrives midway through the film for one stunning scene and absolutely shatters you with it.
And then there’s Aldis Hodge as Anthony Woods, the inmate on death row. Hodge creates a portrait of devastating humanity in the face of injustice, a man war-torn by the battles between hopelessness and resilience, resignation and faith, and anger and peace.
The film, written and directed by Chinonye Chukwu, won the Grand Jury Prize at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival and has been passionately championed by critics and the festival awards circuit on its path to its theatrical release Dec. 27. For Hodge, who will star in the thriller The Invisible Man next year, the performance and the film’s reception represents a moment in his career that he has spent the last three decades climbing towards: Being seen as a leading man—a black leading man—on his terms.
“I’ve been acting since I was two, and the main thing my mother always told while I did it was ‘representation,’” he says. “‘Make sure your representation is together and you represent us well.’”
“Us” is a loaded term in that quote, as Hodge explains when we sit down in Savannah, Georgia, where he accepted the Discovery Award at the 2019 SCAD Savannah Film Festival.
He was born in North Carolina and raised between New York and New Jersey as a child, before moving to Los Angeles to secure a better foothold for him and his older brother, Edwin, to pursue acting careers. “When I was in Jersey, we grew up around the KKK,” he says. “I was reminded of my blackness on a regular basis.”
When he was younger, he struggled to land auditions because casting directors thought his skin was too dark, that he was “too black to be on TV,” he says. He smiles remembering the reassurance his mother would give him: “One of these days they are going to love your chocolate skin.” Then there was the confusion when he would go to auditions and be told he wasn’t black enough.
“I would ask what that even means,” he says. “Because my brother and I were articulate, educated, and well-spoken, this 40-year-old white man told me, no, you’re not black enough. That taught me at a young age that their idea of black is so far off from what the truth is.”
His first big break was at age nine in 1995’s Die Hard with a Vengeance. From there, he booked a series of guest starring and small film roles, before landing a recurring spot on NBC’s Friday Night Lights.
But where so many actors whimsically discuss how they couldn’t possibly have calculated the delightful twists and turns of their acting careers, the privilege of being a white performer, Hodge is explicit about his path was dotted with pointed, strategic choices. And often that choice was “no,” even when turning down a job meant turning down a paycheck. There was a bigger picture he was after. There was that “us” his mom asked him to consider.
When he was a teenager, he told his agency at the time that he wasn’t going to go after “thug roles and athletes” anymore, because “that’s all people want to see us as.”
“I was very aware that I had to press upon people the truth of what I am, who I am as a man, what my culture is,” he says. “You know, black culture is rife with education, academia, scholastics theory, art, inspiration, architecture and foundation. So many of these principles, which other cultures hold themselves high on, we are ingrained in the DNA of that. And that's what has to be seen as normalcy.”
On his 21st birthday, he landed a role on the TNT drama Leverage, which ran for five seasons and wrapped up in 2012. His character, Alec Hardison, was a computer nerd, a hacker who targeted corporate denizens on behalf of exploited everyday people, like a digital-age Robin Hood.
“Most people thought it was refreshing and new to see this black guy who was smart and using a computer and this and that,” he says. “I’m like, y’all realize this is regular? We do this. This is not uncommon. It’s not an exception. But to show that on TV and show that as an exception, deplorable as that might be that people were surprised by that, it was still a great example and a chance to show the truth of that.”
In recent years, Hodge was featured in the ensemble of Hidden Figures, starred in the “Black Museum” episode of Black Mirror, and played the hunky romantic lead opposite Taraji P. Henson in What Men Want. He scored rave reviews as the lead in the gone-too-soon drama Underground, produced by John Legend, in which he played an American slave escaping towards freedom on the Underground Railroad.
Underground was a subversive entry into the canon of slavery depictions on TV and cinema, treating it as a serialized action series and superhero origin story. As The Atlantic’s Vann R. Newkirk wrote, “The first season owed a debt to The Walking Dead as much as it did to Roots.”
Hodge says he was invigorated by the opportunity to correct misinformation about slavery in America with the series.
“I saw a resurgence of interest from a lot of black people because we've been given such a downtrodden view of what that history is, and people don't want to go back to pain and seeing ourselves being beaten down and losing all the time,” he says. “But with Underground, we saw our culture fighting for their value. It's refreshing because people don't realize how little we actually see that we're not being submissive. We're not being subdued. We are fighting back.”
Clemency is coming amid a string of projects Hodge has been involved in that deal with race, incarceration, and the justice system.
His first leading role in a movie came in last year’s Brian Banks, about the real-life NFL linebacker who was wrongfully convicted of rape at age 16 and spent six years in prison and five on parole before his conviction was overturned in 2012 when his accuser confessed to fabricating her claim.
This summer, he made his debut on the new Showtime drama series City on a Hill, in which he plays an assistant district attorney in 1990s Boston who works with an FBI veteran played by Kevin Bacon on what seems like an impossible case that could bring real change to a corrupt system.
What Hodge appreciates about Clemency is that it prods at audiences’ consciences and moral compasses, but doesn’t overtly answer the questions it asks about mercy and justice, particularly when those concepts shroud matters of life and death.
He admits that, at first, he wondered how playing Anthony in the movie would fit into his mission and his rejection of playing convicts and Hollywood tropes for how Americans see black men. “Another brother in jail, right?” he says.
“But then I realized this is different. We’re showing a human being in jail and asking the audience the question, do we as a society have the right to be complicit in the killing of others? So it’s not even about him being black. It’s about him being a man.”