Director Neema Barnette
was recently honored at the 6th Annual Lady Filmmakers Festival, and rightfully so. She made history as the first African American Woman to direct a major network TV sitcom, and the first African American woman to get a major studio deal. She has won countless awards (including an Emmy, the NAACP Image Award, the Women in Radio
& TV Award, the Lilly Award, and the Peabody Award to name a few) and is a shining example of what is possible for women in film.
Neema shares her thoughts on the Lady Filmmakers Festival, her inspiration and the beginnings of her career, and her own advice to women who are just embarking on their own journeys in film:
What was your impression of the Lady Filmmakers Festival?
I’ve been in many festivals with my film “Civil Brand
”, which was at Sundance and won five other festivals, including the American Black Film Festival and the Urbanworld Film Festival. This festival was interesting because it focused on women and the men who work with them, which I’ve never seen before. That was really interesting. It also was very intimate and supportive. What I liked the most is how people came up to me after the first seminar and shared how excited and encouraged they were.
As an experienced female filmmaker and director, I truly understand the significance of this festival. There aren’t enough women directing in our business. Even though the statistics are low, we still have to keep moving them up. It is not true that women can’t fulfill their dreams of becoming filmmakers, and share their voices cinematically.
What was it like for you to start your film career, and what was the inspiration that kept you going?
I was very young, and never the kind of person who was told I couldn’t do things. In school, one of our teachers was Vinette Carol, a black director from the West Indies who directed plays on Broadway - I had never seen a black woman director before. When I was in college, Vinette was working with what was called Urban Arts Corps and chose me to act in her plays.
After that experience, I got a job at the Harlem Ymca as a drama and dance instructor for the summer. It was through this that I recreated Vinette Carol's plays with the kids. I really enjoyed it, and felt authentically creative in this process.
I joined a theater group in Harlem called The Frank Silver
Writer's Workshop. They had a play and asked, “Who wants to direct it?” I was young and daring enough to raise my hand, and I did it! I really enjoyed directing that play, and knew it was what I wanted to do.
I was a young director when I got accepted to the American Film Institute. I knew how to work with actors, how to develop characters, but I didn’t know too much about filmmaking. My only film experience prior to this was at Third World Cinema in New York, which was made to train people in developing countries about film and television.
When I got to La, I did my film "Sky Captain
"' and I was encouraged. I think my motivation came from my love for directing. It was what I loved to do, and I just kept doing it.
When I graduated and started getting hired as a professional director, I was in heaven. I was getting paid for what I love to do. I was also told things like “You’re too young to be a director,” and “directors are old, and you have to have experience,” but I just ignored that and said I’m directing. That’s it!
There were several people who were very encouraging, including Jean Ferstenburg, Gloria Steinem
, and Roselyn Heller. Barbara Corday
, Head of Columbia Television at the time, hired me and it was her decision that helped me to make history as the first African American woman to direct in television! I also had support from people like Paul Mason
at Viacom, David Putnam
at Columbia Pictures
, Frank Price
of Sony Pictures, Tom Werner
of Carsey Werner TV, Robert Greenwald
, Bill Haber
at CAA and Hugh Wilson
. I was kind of a novelty, and very appreciative for them to take a shot and give me opportunities to work.
What is your best advice for young women filmmakers?
I’ve been an adjunct professor at USC for seven years, and this is my 18th year at UCLA. I tell my students that they need to understand that nothing is easy, but when you have a passion for something, you just have to do it.
Now is a better time than ever, because you don’t have to be in Hollywood to make a movie. You can be in Kansas
and use your iPhone to make a movie. The Internet has provided such a great creative outlet for young people to tell their stories. With things like the web series, it’s a very exciting time to be a filmmaker.
My advice is to find their tribe, their group of people with positivity, like minds and spirit. You need the honesty of what’s coming ahead, but you also need the inspiration to get you through it. That’s very important. You can’t be a filmmaker because you want to party and where all black at festivals. You have to have a voice, because film is one of the most important art forms for social change we have - even if it’s just pure entertainment, it’s still influential.
I think that we as women have to really stick together, and really understand that the images put on the screen will really affect generations to come. Film is in perpetuity, and we have a responsibility to say something real.
Positivity is important. It doesn’t make sense to keep complaining. The time that you spend complaining is the time that you could spend creating something. A lot of success isn’t all based on talent. It’s based on perseverance and building connections.
What projects are you working on?
I have a couple of projects that I’m working on. I’m writing a script about Ida B. Wells Barnett, one of the first black women to ever have a newspaper. She was active in the anti-lynching movement.
I’m also doing a family film called "Soccer Monkey" with Myrl Schreibman. It's exciting because it's something different from my usual. It’s a heart-warming film (being produced by Good Deed Productions) about a kind of lonely young kid who befriends a chimp who can play soccer. After dealing with films of very serious matters, it’s nice to change it up.
I’m also very excited about a web series that my husband and I started called Black History Mini Docs. They’re docs about black history and are about 90 seconds long. We started it a year ago on Facebook and have gotten so many positive responses.
My daughter, a playwright, has a new play that I'll be directing in New York soon. I’m absolutely thrilled about it!