Neema Barnette Prominent and prolific, director and producer Neema Barnette has engaged audiences with a body of compelling socially- 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, including an Emmy Award for her after school special, "To Be A Man." With her recent transition to feature films, Barnette has realized the need to expand her audience beyond the young urban crowd and attract all people to her work. Born and raised in Harlem, Barnette made her first foray into entertainment as an actor while a student at New York's High School for the Performing Arts. She later attended NYU and moved on to directing at the insistence of theatrical producer Joseph Papp, who saw in her a unique visual style. She directed "The Blue Journey," by playwright OyamO (a.k.a. Charles Gordon), for Papp's Public Theater. This eventually led to her directing "To Be A Man" and winning the Emmy Award that would open many doors for her. Barnette later earned an NAACP Image Award for the NBC special, "One More Hurdle" (1984), the true story of Donna Marie Cheek and her struggle to become the first African-American member of the U.S. Olympic Equestrian team. Also at this time, Barnette was accepted to the Directing Workshop for Women at the American Film Institute (AFI), where she directed the independent film, "Sky Captain" (1985), a surreal fantasy about a suicidal Peter Pan lurking about the Bronx. Next up for Barnette was the documentary, "The Silent Crime," which earned four local Emmy nominations and an award for directing from American Women in Radio & Television.
Her big break, however, came in 1986 when she directed an episode of "What's Happening Now," an opportunity that gave Barnette the distinction of being the first African-American woman to ever direct a sitcom. Her work on the episode bestowed upon her another NAACP Image Award nomination. Barnette went on to direct many hours of television on such hit series as "A Different World" (1987), "Diagnosis Murder" (1993), "The Cosby Mysteries" (1994), "7th Heaven" (1996) and "The PJs" (1999). The director was richly rewarded for this work, including nominations for a Peabody Award for "China Beach" and another Emmy for "The Cosby Show." But Barnette's work on television was not limited to just series. She directed several TV movies, most notably the PBS biopic "Zora Is My Name" (1990), which aired as a part of the "American Playhouse" series. Set in the rural South in the 30's and 40's, the drama depicts the life of African-American writer and anthropologist Zora Neale Hurston, and combines with the narrative passages of Hurston's work as read by actors. More television movies followed, including "Different Worlds: An Interracial Love Story" (1992), which aired on CBS and earned Barnette four Daytime Emmy nominations and a DGA nod for directing. On the heels of "Different Worlds" came "Better Off Dead" (1993), a Lifetime movie starring Mare Winningham and Tyra Ferrell, about an ex-district attorney who fights for the release of a woman she put in prison seven years prior. A Cable Ace award nomination for Barnette soon followed.
Barnette then made the jump to feature films with "Spirit Lost" (1997), an erotic horror story about a painter and his pregnant wife who move to an island, only to learn that their home is haunted by a 200 year-old widow who plots to steal the husband away. Unfortunately, the film never made it to theaters, but was released on video by Live Entertainment. However, Barnette's biggest challenge of her career lurked just around the corner. The director signed on to the feature "Civil Brand" in 2000, but spent the next three years trying to get the film made. And after only fourteen days of shooting, distributor Lions Gate halted production after the company absorbed Trimark Pictures.
Since the executives working on "Civil Brand" were all fired, no one was left at the company to champion the film. Barnette made a deal with Lions Gate that allowed her to continue shooting after an 18-month hiatus. However, the deal stipulated that she shoot the remaining forty-one scenes in only five days. Undeterred, but under the gun, Barnette managed to finish the film. Her hard work was duly rewarded: "Civil Brand" captured a spot in Sundance's American Spectrum series, as well showings at the Black American Film Festival and Urbanworld Film Fest.
With over 200 primetime hours of produced television material and several films under her belt, Barnette has managed to find the time to reach out to young writers and filmmakers. As executive director of the Live Theatre Gang in New York City, a theatre group founded by husband Reed R. McCants, she has helped mentor and teach young people to express themselves on stage. The group was founded in 1997 with the intent to extend the opportunity for young urban actors of all ethnicities to perform their own productions. Barnette also became a visiting professor at UCLA and USC, where she taught directing in their Masters program.