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Neema Barnette: Harlemite Speaks On Being the First Black Female With a Major Studio Deal

Neema Barnette

Neema Barnette is the director of Bishop T.D. Jakes’ new film project, Woman Thou Art Loosed: On the 7th Day. Historically, Barnette is celebrated for being the first African-American female director to be granted a deal with a major film studio via Columbia Pictures, which is now a part of the Columbia TriStar Motion Picture Group owned by Sony Pictures Entertainment.

In support of On the 7th Day’s release this past weekend, Neema Barnette spoke with AllHipHop.com about her personal background – as a Harlem native – and its influence upon her professional experiences in Hollywood:

AllHipHop.com:  Looking at your resume, I am just astounded. At the beginning of your professional career, you directed 13 episodes of The Cosby Show and A Different World between 1989 and 1991.  Two years afterward in 1993, you released two television movies: Better Off Dead and Scattered Dreams. As you transitioned from the TV to film, are there any artistic techniques or professional lessons learned that continue to guide your present-day filmmaking?

Neema Barnette:  Clayton, I learned the value and repercussions of sacrifice. When I was doing episodics, I found that it wasn’t really for me. I came out of black theatre in New York, and so I was a storyteller, and I wanted to do things a certain way. I got into film because I feel it’s one of the strongest social and political tools we have. I thought it was a very interesting mind-molding art form. That’s why I got into it, and I didn’t think that working in episodics really allowed me to fulfill my goal. So I told my agents I want to go back. We did Frank’s Place and all these shows. They said: “Well, it’s just episodics. We don’t really know what you can do.” So, I took on [a CBS Schoolbreak Special] called [Different Worlds: A Story of Interracial Love] with Duane Martin and Noelle Parker. They witnessed this murder after high school in this bodega. I shot it on a Super 16. I shot it in five days. And it got four Daytime Emmys. Don’t ask me why. I mean, when I look back on it, I’m going: “Oh, my God!”

And from that project, I got my first feature for television: Better Off Dead starring Tyra Ferrell and Mare Winningham. I didn’t work for a while. I didn’t want to do episodics anymore. I took some steps back in order to take some steps forward in a direction that I wanted to go to. That’s how I did it. And once I did Better Off Dead, the rave reviews put me on the map. After that, then Robert Greenwald hired me to direct Scattered Dreams with Tyne Daly and Alicia Silverstone, and I was on my way. I liked working in TV movies better because I could hire my own crew. And they embodied “little stories,” as they were small features. In between, I had gotten a couple of deals at Columbia Pictures. David Putnam gave me a deal with his New Directors program and Frank Price gave me a real housekeeping deal when they had me on the front page of The Hollywood Reporter — as the first African-American woman to ever get a studio deal. And I was set to do my movie right after John Singleton released Boyz n the Hood (1991) – with Laurence Fishburne, Cuba Gooding, Jr., and an incredible list of others stars.

I was working on a film called Listen for the Fig Tree, based upon a young adult novel written by an African-American female writer Sharon Bell Mathis. I love that book! And I was so excited – as it was a winner of a Young Adult Pulitzer Prize. I love that story! And just about the time we were ready to get to go, they kicked David Putnam out of Columbia. I’m like: “Okay, so just my luck.” So, I went back to directing TV movies. You know, when you’re young, you don’t really understand the nature of the beast, but I did understand that they didn’t understand the type of storytelling that I wanted to do. They just didn’t get it, and there was nobody in the studio that I could pitch to that could relate to the kind of stories that I wanted to tell. I left there and went back and just directed the TV movies.

I tried to get some features off the ground, but they weren’t interested in the kind of stories that I wanted to tell, though they said they’re well-written, I just couldn’t garner support, because I think that there was some balanced images in there. I think that you have to know how to play a certain game in order to get a studio to fund you money. That’s difficult. That’s very difficult. By me being the type of person whose politics were formed before I left Harlem and came out to Hollywood, I wasn’t about to give that up. Like my momma used to tell me: “There’s always a job at the Post Office.” [laughing] So, I began teaching. This is my fifteenth year teaching in the film department at UCLA – [The University of California, Los Angeles]. I also taught film for seven years USC – [The University of Southern California]. And for a couple of years, I worked with Spike Lee on Miracle’s Boys (2005), a television miniseries.

AllHipHop.com:  Ah, yes! I remember. Pooch Hall starred in one of the leading roles.

Neema Barnette:  He had done it several years ago. It was an incredible project helmed by Spike Lee, Bill Duke, Ernest R. Dickerson, LeVar Burton and myself. I was the only woman. So, Spike asked me to come back to New York and teach at NYU with him for a term. I did that, and tried to develop my own story.  Civil Brand (2002) was a movie that came to me right after my mother had passed away. Initially, I thought Civil Brand was going to be like a TV movie, like six or eight months. That movie wound up taking three years off my life. What a journey that was, you know, because first they were bought by Lionsgate, and then I started get calls saying: “What’s this about slave labor and the prison system? Meanwhile, you’re forcing people to think.” I mean, it was deep. I called Mos Def up – since we had previously worked together on The Cosby Mysteries – and he was in it. You know, once again, this was me trying to get warriors – warriors to come along with me on a journey and make a Black film because that was what we needed. You’ve got to have your tribe, because it’s never going to be easy.

I did the same thing with [Woman Thou Art Loosed: On the 7th Day]. I rewrote the script first with Black acting male American characters, which was very important for me to have strong – and balanced – Black male images in the film. I rewrote David [Ames] with Blair [Underwood] in mind. And out of the blue, I contacted him, and out of the blue, he said: “I’m in.” I was shocked – because Blair is one of our few stars that is so accessible. He said: “Neema, I’ve been a fan of your work.” Then, I was fortunate enough to get Sharon Leal. Sharon is the best-kept secret in New York and Hollywood. That girl’s got skills, and she can go. What a woman! What an actress! And then when they told me they could get Pam Grier to play the detective…

AllHipHop.com:  Yes! Yes! Yes! [laughing] Pam Grier! [laughing]

Neema Barnette:  …I had a heart attack. I went:, Oh, my God! So of course, I didn’t have enough time to redo her character, but she called me. She said,: “I know you, Neema. You were the first black woman to get a studio deal. I love you.” And I said, “Oh, my God. What an honor.” What a joy! What an icon! And then she said: “Listen. I want to play a Bayou detective that could smell your hand and tell if you’re lying.” I said, “Okay,” and she came down there with her braids and her cowboy hat!

AllHipHop.com:  Classic! [laughter]

Neema Barnette:  And then I said: “Pam, you know I have to have you beating up some people!” [laughter]

AllHipHop.com:  Of course! [laughter] It isn’t every day that you have the legendary “Foxy Brown” on the set! [laughter continues]

Neema Barnette:  So, I got her beating up some people – and she does a great job, and what a joy! What an honor for us to pay honor to her.

The preceding is an excerpt from a Q&A conducted by AllHipHop.com contributor, Clayton Perry [@crperry84]. For the entire conversation, as well as Neema Barnette’s insights on race, culture and Hollywood, please visit his digital archive at www.claytonperry.com.

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