How I ripped apart my law school applications to pursue my filmmaking passion – Hollywood’s Chinonye Chukwu

By Duchess Magazine

From the Igbo heritage, Rivers State, Port Harcourt, in Nigeria, accomplished screenwriter, director, and producer, Chinonye Chukwu rose to become one of the waves of Hollywood in the 21st century with her signature silence-punctuated performances to express deeper emotions with the faces of her actors. The first black woman to win the U.S. Dramatic Grand Jury Prize at Sundance in 2019 Chukwu has bagged numerous prestigious awards with her body of works: Alaska Land, Bottom, A Long Work, and she is currently the Director of the TV series, “Americanah” based on the novel of the same name by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. But, when and where it all began for Chuckwu, was far from being a bed of roses, she had to rip herself of her ‘peace’ to make a profession out of her passion.

Barely over a-year-old Chinonye Chukwu left the shores of Nigeria in the hands of her parents, for Oklahoma, USA. Her father who has a Ph.D. in Petroleum Engineering and her mother who has two Masters, one in Chemical Engineering and another in Petroleum Engineering migrated to the U.S. and when she was six, her family moved to Alaska where she spent her depressive childhood and migration into adulthood.

Though she had nurtured from within, the dream of becoming a filmmaker since she was a child, she, however, had no language to dare communicate it to her parents who expected her, without any debate, to become a lawyer or an engineer – that was the ‘divine path’ she was ‘designed’ to follow. While she was struggling with her academics, changing her major seven times during her undergraduates, she was seeing the world through series of images, and frames, with matching songs as music scores in her mind, whether as an observant or a participant. With the help of the kind of music she grew up with, she would teleport herself, in her mind, to the world of her characters.

When she finally realized that the weight of carrying another person’s world and expectations was suffocating her soul, she decided to cross the threshold. She ripped her law school applications to pieces and ran after her burning passion, filmmaking. She settled for English in her undergraduates, just because the program has a script writing class.

That was the moment she embraced her life on her own terms. Her first film, a documentary titled, “Four Women: Being Black and Female on DePauw’s Campus”, was nothing to be proud of, according to her, but that was what got her into film school, where she then made a film every year. These movies she would later put together into a body of work, to apply for the Prince Grace Foundation Grant – the $25,000 award she won to have her first big break. She got another grant from the same body later in her career. This was a major push for Chukwu in her career, an assurance and a reaffirmation of her exceptional talent, and propelled her into the professional space and global radar.

However, Chuckwu’s real inspiration for intentional filmmaking as a craft came at the beginning of her film school after she spent over three hours watching Federica Fellini’s “8 1/2”, sitting at the edge of her seat. According to her, every fame was mind-blowing and sucked her into the world of craft-based filmmaking as opposed to instinct-based. This would later inspire some of her choices in her own projects.

Then a year came, about four years ago, when it seemed Chukwu was cursed by the very gods of rejection, every one of her works was being rejected, and then, she fell into the hole of depression again, until she realized that this moment was pushing her towards self-actualisation. She ripped off her egocentric reality to open herself up to embracing rejection. She also realized that the continuation of her craft is not contingent upon acceptance or rejection. This transformation would later help her as a professional educator.

Today, Chinonye Chukwu is the Assistant Professor of Film Production at Wright State University, where she teaches courses in screenwriting and directing in the Department of Theatre, Dance, and Motion Pictures. She is a recipient of the prestigious Princess Grace Award and Princeton Hodder Fellowship. Her debut feature film, AlaskaLand, was been selected to screen globally, including at the Chicago International Film Festival and the New York African Festival at Lincoln Center. The film is currently available on iTunes, VOD, and other digital and broadcast platforms.

Chinonye’s short film, The Dance Lesson, premiered at the Ritz Theater of Philadelphia and was later licensed by mindTV for regional network distribution. The film was also a Regional Finalist for the 2010 Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences Student Academy Awards. Currently, Chinonye has just completed her next project, entitled A Long Walk. The film is a short adaptation of the anthologized story, “A Walk Through the Neighborhood”, and is partially funded by a $27,000 Special Projects Grant from the Princess Grace Foundation-USA. The film continues to thrive on the festival circuit, winning a Special Jury prize at the USA Festival. It has also screened at several Academy Award Qualifying festivals, including the Cleveland International Film Festival, Florida Film Festival, Athens International Film, and Video Festival, and the Rhode Island International Film Festival.

Her latest work, “Till” tells the story of the murder of Emmett Till and the activism of his mother, Mamie Till-Mobley.

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