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Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Elan Repost - Interview with a director

I found this in my archives and am reposting as we so rarely see any interviews with African-American female directors. This one was candid and informative and Ms. Barnette was really a joy to talk with.

NEEMA BARNETTE - A Sister in the Director's Chair

by Sharon Cullars

The name Neema Barnette may be unfamiliar to many of you, but most likely you've seen some of her work if you've ever watched The Cosby Show, China Beach, A Different World or Diagnosis Murder. That's because she directed episodes for these popular shows, as well as many others. She's also directed a few made-for-TV movies for Lifetime and the major networks. In addition, she was the first African-American woman to receive a three-picture deal at Columbia/Sony Pictures(more about that below).

Born and raised in Harlem, Neema began her career directing plays by emerging African-American writers before moving to television and movies. Currently, she runs her own production company called Harlem Lite Productions (in California), where she is busy trying to bring the lives of African-American women to the screen. She took time out of her busy schedule to answer a few questions (as a matter of fact, she e-mailed me her answers early one morning just before getting ready for a shoot - we're talking 3am here). Below is our exchange.

First of all, what inspired you to become a director?
My interest in directing came from the desire to tell stories about my people with a sense of balance and truth. As an actress, I quickly realized the imbalance in Black characters and the lack of control we had over our own images. I grew up in Harlem around a wide variety of Black people, rich in soul and character and I didn't see those people in films, and rarely onstage. When I joined the Frank Silvera workshop in Harlem, I became a part of a new wave of artists. Writers like Richard Wesley, Ntozake Shange (For Colored Girls) and others were writing plays about Black people that I could relate to. While attending High School of Performing Arts in New York, I had a Black female director as a teacher, Vinette Carroll, who excited my interest in directing. She served as a role model, confirming that I could do it, too. My passion grew stronger in college and I began to direct plays at the Harlem YMCA every summer. Being able to participate in all creative areas of the storytelling process was the most exciting and rewarding feeling I've ever had. The Black audiences' responses to seeing balanced images of themselves in stories about their lives gave me a feeling of triumph and I knew I'd found the best way to use my gift.

And was there any particular director or directors who influenced you in your decision?
Vinette Carroll, an African American female director was my first inspiration to direct stage. Julie Dash, Gordan Parks and Spike Lee strongly influenced my move into filmmaking.

How has being African-American and female shaped the course of your career? Have there been barriers based on this dichotomy?
Being a Black woman whose gig is to shape images has been an interesting, rewarding and frustrating journey. Film is a mind-molding art form, and a society that has viewed Black women as prostitutes or servants for generations doesn't take well to a turnaround. I am constantly battling to de-code and re-code our images in every project I undertake. It's a choice I made and that choice has prevented me from working on films I should have gotten. Studios want directors they can control, images that make them feel comfortable. I've had to fight for every balanced image and emotional scene I created on every Black project I've directed. These battles have shaped my course and I wouldn't have it any other way!

Give us a broad overview of an average day in the life of a director. What do you do on and off the set to make a movie?
Here's the broad strokes: You arrive before everyone on the set each morning and prepare for everyone to hit you with questions you must have the answers for. After the smoke clears, and the sun rises,(that's usually how early you get there) you rehearse your actors. Then you call in your Director of Photography (DP) and rehearse actors again, this time before the crew so they can set your shot up and camera block with marks. Then the actors go off to get in wardrobe and you answer more questions, change shots, adapt to the environment and make sure you get your first shot off before you eat breakfast. While you're drinking your coffee or tea, your Assistant Director (AD) is shuttling you to your next location to get a hold on your next set up and then back to shoot the one you've rehearsed. This process goes on for each of the 17 to 25 scenes I shoot each day. Whatever else that can go wrong also goes wrong and you have to fix it but that's the challenge and the fun of it! After you wrap for the day, you sit for several more hours with your AD and DP, revamping and confirming plans for the next day. We won't talk about producers and actors or writers because that's another article!

Of the films and shows you have directed, which has or have brought you the most personal and professional satisfaction?
A movie I made for Lifetime called "Better Off Dead" which starred Tyra Ferrell (Boys In The Hood) and Mare Winningham gave me great satisfaction because I got to tell the story in my own style and I won battles I had with Lifetime's executives concerning Tyra's character. In the end, we won a Cable Ace Award for "Better Off Dead." The movie "Run For The Dream: The Gail Devers Story" also gave me a lot of satisfaction because I got the chance to tell a story of a Black hero who is still alive. Gail's story of triumph was so compelling that I felt honored to be the one to bring it to the world and especially to our people. But the piece that holds a special place in my heart is "Zora Is My Name" that I did for American Playhouse on Zora Neal Hurston. It was a labor of love bringing together Ruby Dee, Lynn Whitfield; Bea Richards; Flip Wilson; Oscar Brown, Jr.; Lou Gossett, Jr.; Paula Kelly; Otis Salid and jazz and blues master, Olu Dara who is also rapper Nas' father. I've been a fan of Zora's since I could first read and the chance to make a journey with her spirit was one of the highlights of my life. I'm glad it was successful and I'm glad colleges around the country have the tape in their library. I was honored to receive the Lilly Award from the Deltas for my work on Zora and I have been blessed many times over for bringing her life into living color with love and balance and truth. I also loved directing the play "The Talented Tenth", by Richard Wesley at the Manhattan Theatre Club in New York. I directed the first original production and then I directed it off-Broadway as well. The play followed several Black couples who went to Howard University in the 60's and who were political revolutionaries. But now, they're rich and conformed. It's about lost values and lost passions. We won ten Adelcos (a theatre award) including Best Director and now companies are doing the play around the country. I'm going to stop now 'cause I guess I liked a lot more projects then we have time to talk about!

There has been a lot of recent press about the lack of African-Americans in television and film, both in front of and behind the camera. Also, there has been a steady decline in jobs over the past few years for women directors. Can you provide some personal insight into the reasons for this and what can be done to change these negative trends?
Like I said earlier, film is a mind-molding business. It's the final frontier for us and it's a hard one to conquer. There're jobs and there’re movies. Listen, I'd rather concentrate on creating my own work and not lose energy knocking on white doors waiting for them to throw me a bone. Black women directors don't compromise their vision the way white producers want us to. So you work less. It's as simple as what you have to say. Black female directors want to make films about the stream of consciousness of black women, we want balanced images, we want to share our humor, our heavy drama as well as our dreams and fantasies and all the glories we've contributed to the world. But they want to keep the images of us that they've created. We're about re-coding and that's not what they want to hear. In the end, it never comes down to money, 'cause our films do make's about image control and fear of losing control. So we make our own smaller films, and the growing number of Black and Third World festivals allow audiences to see them. I'd rather be a queen in my own small kingdom than be a slave in someone else's larger kingdom. As long as you don't judge yourself by society's standards, but by your own, you'll be fine. I believe it's got to get ugly in order for change to occur. But then again, I'm a Harlem girl and came up under Malcolm and an entire Black Arts Movement that created individual voices of change and uncompromise...ya dig?

You have directed episodes for a lot of television series, including The Cosby Show and The Sinbad Show. What was it like working with these very funny men?
It was great. I learned so much from Mr. C and enjoyed creating with him on the spot. Sinbad is a gem and a great talent. I could barely keep a straight face. Both of these warriors had constant battles with producers and writers. I always stood by them, which never made the producers happy. Sinbad was totally conscious and never gave into negative or false images. Mr. C, well, he ran the show that's the only reason he was number one. Yes, indeed it was a pleasure to have walked in both their lights!

Tell us a little about the projects you developed under your deal with Columbia/Sony.
I developed and wrote two scripts with my husband Reed McCants. One was about a Black town in Oklahoma called "Boley" and the other script "The Guide" was about a Harlem co-op. When the studio told us that it wasn't believable for the lead to own his own apartment in Harlem and that we should make him the super instead, we picked up our script and waited out our deal and left. A studio deal is useless unless the studio has Black executives who have an interest in telling Black stories and who can relate to the milieu. We had no one to pitch to and it was just a waste of time. Yeah I saw racism first hand and up front, but I already knew about that! Nothing new, yesterday’s news and still on the stand!

Is there a particular literary work by an African-American (or even non-Af-Am) writer that you would particularly like to see translated to film?
Many books! I'm adapting one now by Sharon Bell Mathis entitled "Listen For The Fig Tree". But there are lots of others as well; only problem is the white producers who have money to offer scoop them up before you can begin to raise funds to option. Like Octavia Butler, Tananarive Due, and on and on. There're many books by Baldwin, Walker, Morrison, Shange, and many more that I'd love to get my hands on. I'd been trying so long to do "Fig Tree," I got them to develop it at Columbia with Sharon writing the first draft of the screenplay, but then they couldn't visualize the story of a black mother and her blind see what I mean???(smile) Finally, Sharon just gave me the rights, bless her heart...and believe me, she won't regret it!

To those young women who aspire to become directors, what advice do you have for them? What are the steps they should take and the pitfalls they should avoid?
My advice is simple - If you have a passion, go after it; if you don't, get one! Know what you're dealing with and remember your sisters and support each other, always. When I watched my 19-year-old daughter's play that she wrote and produced this past Fall in New York, I realized that all the welts on my back and on Julie Dash's (director of the movie, Daughters in the Dust) and others, welts that an entire bottle of cocoa butter can't heal, were all worth it. You see it's about each one teaching one, making a road for the next. When the slaves told Harriet Tubman that their feet were bleeding and they didn't think they could make it across the river, she turned to them with passion in her eyes, and a smile on her face and said "What the hell does feet have to do with freedom, they're nothin' but flesh on bones...get gone now!"


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