Director and producer Neema Barnette has engaged audiences with a body of socially compelling and politically charged work that defies the narrow stereotypes of African-Americans usually depicted in entertainment. Working in both television and film, Barnette has earned the respect of peers and critics alike by winning countless accolades.
Barnette recently directed the feature Woman Thou Art Loosed On the 7th Day. The film stars Pam Grier, Blair Underwood, Nicole Jarbari and Sharon Leal and is produced by Neema, Bishop TD Jakes of Jumpin the Broom and Sparkle, and Code Black Entertainment. The movie is a dramatic thriller that explores problems in modern day marriage and the abduction of a little girl. The AMC theater chain theatrically released the feature on April 13th on 129 screens. It premiered as number one for per screen average opening weekend, beating out The Hunger Games. In January 2013, the film was one of three pictures nominated for “Best Independent Feature” by the NAACP Image Awards.
Known for her creativity, in 2010 Neema directed a gospel musical film, Heaven Ain’t Hard to Find, starring Kim Whitley, Cliff Powell & Reed McCants. Neema developed a new format for gospel plays by shooting actual locations and combined theater with cinema. The picture aired on paid preview, HBO and BET. In 2008, Neema executive produced Cuttin Da Mustard, an independent feature written and directed by Reed McCants. The film is a comedy but deals seriously with young adult illiteracy and stars Brandon T. Jackson, Sinbad, Charles Dutton, Adrienne Bailon, Keisha Knight Pulliman, Lil Zane, Jonathan Wesley and Chico Benyman. Barnette began 2007 by directing the film My Super Sweet 16: the Movie for MTV Paramount. The picture stars rockers Aly & AJ and singer Ciara. In July 2006, Neema directed the feature film All You’ve Got for MTV Paramount Films starring Laila Ali and Faizon Love.
For the mini-series Miracle’s Boys produced in 2005 for the Noggin network by filmmaker Spike Lee, Neema was the only female director invited to join Spike’s directing team along with Laver Burton, Ernest Dickerson and Bill Duke. The project aired in February of that year to rave reviews.
Barnette, a native of Harlem New York, began her career as a stage actress while attending New York’s High School for the Performing Arts. After earning a BA from The City College of New York, and an MFA from NYU School of The Arts, she subsequently took a position in Vinnette Carroll’s prestigious “Urban Arts Corps” as an actress and directed inner city kids in plays designed to enhance their reading skills. It was then that Neema fell in love with directing. At twenty-one, Neema made her directing debut at Joseph Papps’ Public Theatre with THE BLUE JOURNEY by Oyamo. Finding cinema in her work, Papp suggested she enroll in a Third World Cinema program. After graduating from the program, Neema produced an after school special titled TO BE A MAN for ABC Television, for which she won her first Emmy Award.
This award would launch the director onto a path of award-winning work and industry achievement. After graduating from CCNY in 1985, Barnette was awarded acceptance into the American Film Institute’s Directing Workshop for Women, where she wrote, produced and directed her first film, Sky Captain, a surrealistic fantasy drama about an urban Peter Pan from the Bronx who was suicidal. This incredibly unique work earned the notice of many among the Hollywood film and television community, and led to One More Hurdle an NBC dramatic special for which Barnette won her first NAACP Image Award. Barnette also lent her vision to a network documentary on domestic violence for NBC, The Silent Crime, which received four local Emmy nominations and won an American Women in Radio & Television award for directing.
In 1986, with a flair for the lighthearted as well as the dramatic, Barnette directed an episode of What’s Happening Now which earned her an NAACP image awards nomination. More significantly, the job made Neema the first African American woman in the history of television to direct a sitcom. This critical breakthrough resulted in subsequent directing stints on Hooperman, the royal family, china beach (Peabody award), franks place (Emmy award), the sinbad show, diagnosis murder, multiples of a different world, the Cosby show (Emmy award) and the Cosby mysteries (Emmy nomination, Peabody nomination), and seventh heaven and the Gilmore girls.
On the heels of work on an episode of Cosby, Barnette mounted a new play by Richard Wesley at the Manhattan Theatre Club, The Talented Tenth. The success of the workshop production propelled Lynn Meadows to open her off Broadway season with the play with Neema as director. That year the play won 10 Adelco Awards, including Best Director. Also that year, Barnette won an International Monitor Award for Best Director for The Cosby Show episode, ‘The Day the Spores Landed.’
Barnette went on to direct several other movies for television, most noteworthy among them, ZORA IS MY NAME (American Playhouse production starring Ruby Dee which won a Lilly Award for Exceptional Representation of African American Images in Film); DIFFERENT WORLDS: AN INTERRACIAL LOVE STORY (four Daytime Emmy nominations, Directors Guild of America nomination for Best Directing); BETTER OFF DEAD (Lifetime Television production starring Mare Winningham and Tyra Ferrell which earned a Cable Ace award nomination); RUN FOR THE DREAM: THE GAIL DEVERS STORY (Showtime Network production starring Lou Gossett Jr. which earned Barnette her fifth NAACP Image Award nomination); SCATTERED DREAMS (for CBS Television Network, starring Tyne Daly and Alicia Silverstone); SIN & REDEMPTION (also for CBS; executive produced by Dick Berg), among others.
The critical acclaim and success of the pictures catapulted Neema into the ranks of a handful of sought after directors whose telefilms brought in high ratings. It also garnered the attention of Frank Price, then chairman of Sony Pictures, who gave Barnette a two-year housekeeping deal to produce, write and direct Listen for the Fig Tree, an original screenplay. This was the second time Neema made history. She became the first African American woman to receive a production DEAL at a major motion picture studio. Neema’s three-year deal included developing film and television projects for the studio.
In September of 2000, Barnette signed on as the director and producer of the feature film Civil Brand starring LisaRaye, Mos Def, Da Brat, N’Bushe Wright, Monica Calhoun, MC Light, Reed McCants and Clifton Powell. The film was shot in fifteen days and was completed in May 2002. In June 2002, the film won the Blockbuster Award at the Black Audience Film Festival in Miami. In August 2002, CIVIL BRAND also won the Audience Award and was given a Special Jury Award at the Urban World Film Festival in New York City. The American Film Institute’s prestigious International Film Festival selected Civil Brand in November of 2002 in Los Angeles where it was featured in the American Directions division. Also in November of 2002, Civil Brand was chosen as an official selection of the Sundance Film Festival and is featured in their American Spectrum Division. The film opened for the Pan African International film festival and won the Festival Award.
Producer Gilbert Cates hired Barnette as a Professor at UCLA’s School of Film & Television in 1999, where she teaches a master filmmaking class to the under graduate film students and has created a syllabus and teaches for the MFA Theater department. Neema has been teaching at UCLA for fifteen years and still teaches there. In September of 2002 Neema also became an associate professor at the USC School of Cinema where she taught film production, television development and directing to undergraduate students for seven years while continuing her professional directing and producing career.
In February 2004, Women in Film honored Neema along with Diane Carroll and Delores Robinson at their Breaking Ground Breakfast in Beverly Hills. On November 30, 2009 in New York City, Congressman Charles Rangel declared Neema Barnette Day in her hometown of Harlem. Neema has been featured in American Film, Dga Magazine, Los Angeles Times, Vogue, Business Weekly, Hollywood Reporter and other periodicals.
Barnette serves on the Executive Board of the DGA African American Steering Committee and is a member of The Black Filmmakers Foundation since its inception. She is also an active AFI alumnus and serves on the panel of the AFI Independent Film committee. Barnette has operated her own production company, Hope Entertainment since 1990 and is Executive Director of Live Theatre Gang, an urban theatre and performance company. She lives between New York and Los Angeles with her husband Reed R. McCants and their daughter.