A New York University graduate, Neema Barnette also attended American Film Institute’s prestigious Women’s Directing Program. In 1986, she became the first African American female sitcom director in history for her work on the show What’s Happening Now. An Emmy award winner, she has also directed episodes many television series, including A Different World, The Cosby Show, Gilmore Girls, Diagnosis Murder, and 7th Heaven.

In 2002, she directed the feature film Civil Brand, starring Mos Def, Da Brat, Lisa Raye, Tichina Arnold, Lark Voorhies, N’Bushe Wright, and Monica Calhoun. Shot in 15 days, the film is drama about women prisoners who take over the prison in a rebellion against the prison’s abuse and exploitation.

Barnette works as a visiting assistant professor at UCLA, serves on the Executive Board of the Directors Guild African American Steering Committee and has been on the Board of Directors of the Black Filmmakers Foundation since its inception.

Barnette talked with Esther Iverem of SeeingBlack.com about her research on the prison system and the obstacles faced by black filmmakers – and especially black women – in making films:

When you initially came into the subject matter, you did a search on the Internet and you came up with some information about the prison industrial complex?
Yes. There was one line in the old script that said a corporation came to visit a prison and so I asked my husband, why would a corporation come to visit a prison? I had no idea so I went online and I typed in “prison as business” and when I typed in “prison as business” I went through a religious experience. I became a fanatic and did as much research as I could. And I found out that Angela Davis had a movement called Critical Resistance, which was totally about the prison-industrial complex. All these major companies are doing business with prisons—they’re closing down their companies and Americans of all colors are losing their pensions, their medical because they’re getting fired. There’s no need for them because [companies] are getting such cheap labor in jail. And so that became the lead story in “Civil Brand.” It’s a major reason why there is a three strikes law, why young people are kept in jail after their time is up. You know, the fuller the prison the larger the contracts.

What happens is that corporations buy the old prisons from the state, buy the land that the prison is on, tear down the old prison, build a new $2 or $3 billion prison, then they lease the prison back to the state.

Where is this happening?
It’s happening all over… And I thought this was interesting, particularly since so many of our young people spend so much money on designer clothes. I don’t think they know those same designers are enslaving their uncles and cousins and keeping them in jail to make those clothes.

And also, so much of our fashion is fashioned after prison attire…
Right, well, the original rap and hip hop culture was a prison culture. That’s where it came from. When we did this film and I went after the cast, particularly the cast I got, I chose them because they were warriors, I knew their politics and we were all from the same tribe. We did this movie to prove that hip hop is not only about bling-bling. The rappers and actors in “Civil Brand” are all conscious artists and we wanted to speak to the audience that buys their records, that goes to see their films, that goes to see their plays.

And that was important. They wanted to reach back to their fans. You know, so often they publicize hip hop as bling bling and diamonds and gold. But there are a lot of conscious hip hop artists out here who are concerned about their fans. And so “Civil Brand” also represents that. I had a cast that stuck with me for almost three years because they believed in what we were doing. We were a team. We were family and we wanted to give something back and get that message out.

And, you know, if we don’t do it, who’s going to do it? We all felt that if you don’t stand for something, you’ll fall for anything. We also wanted to let youth know, so they won’t have to say—as a character says in the film—I’m in here for stupid s*#t. Don’t do stupid s*#t that can mess up the rest of your life. It was very important for the characters in “Civil Brand” not to say that, “I don’t deserve to be here.” They said they did the crime and they were here to do the time. But the judge [who sent them there] didn’t say anything about abuse and exploitation. And so these are themes that we consciously put into the script.

Typically when you talk to Black folks trying to make films they will talk about how the problem is that we don’t have Black people in studios in a position to greenlight films. Is that still the main stumbling block for the Black film community?
That is correct. Yes it is. There is nobody out there. From my experience, it is [still the problem]. When you take a film to studio, who are you going to pitch to? Everybody has their own subculture so why should they want to hear about yours when they can have something from their homeboy who was in the same frat at Harvard? And they drank beer together—they’d rather make a movie about that. I’ve had two studio deals but we wanted to do Black films and there was nobody to pitch the ideas to…

We spoke before about Black women facing a triple jeopardy in Hollywood and there aren’t many White women directors either. How does the old boys network in Hollywood particularly hurt Black women?
We’re basically invisible…Let me put it this way. I saw Alfre Woodard on “The Arsenio Hall Show” way back when I had done a film titled “Better Off Dead.” …They talked about it a little bit and he said “Why aren’t there many Black women directors?” and she mentioned my name and Julie [Dash] and Debbie [Allen] and Euzhan [Palcy]. She said, Black women are moving up in the corporate world because we can be the housekeepers of their corporations. But the director is the person who creates the vision, through whose eyes the story is told. And that is the final frontier because, to them, that’s dangerous.

That’s vision, the vision thing.
Right, So we can be hired to be a vice president and keep house for them and take orders and facilitate and execute someone else’s orders but not to give orders. And so that’s where we stand here in Hollywood. That’s just how it is.

Read the full interview.


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  2. Neema Barnette is one of the best filmmmakers in America period. I wish she would be given a big project to show her skill.

  3. Civil Brand for me is still one of the best films ever made. I wish Neema would make a sequel. It is definitely a thoughtful film.


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