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Arts & Culture

Honoring Black Female Filmmakers

FARAI CHIDEYA, host:

It can be difficult hacking it as a director in Hollywood. But when you're black and a woman, well, it ain't easy. There are people making waves, though, and others giving props where props are due.

On Sunday, the 14th Annual African-American Film Marketplace will honor black female directors.

Emmy winner Neema Barnette will be featured. And she's with me now. Hi.

Ms. NEEMA BARNETTE (Award-Winning Director): Hi.

CHIDEYA: So congratulations on that.

Ms. BARNETTE: Oh, thank you. I feel humbled and honored to be a part of such a wonderful event. It was like going back home, you know? African-American female directors are very close. We have to be because the journey is not this crystal staircase, but decoding or recording the images are worth it all. So it was a wonderful, wonderful evening. And so many people came out, and we looked at each other's work, and it was just fabulous.

CHIDEYA: So you won an Emmy as a producer for an afterschool special "To Be A Man." How did you get to that point? And what are your goals from this point forward? I know that's a broad question.

Ms. BARNETTE: That's right.

CHIDEYA: I know you have a film coming up. But just give us a little sketch of how, at least, you got to the point of winning that Emmy.

Ms. BARNETTE: Well, I won the Emmy - I have two directing Emmys. But the Emmy you're talking about I got for producing. I started in New York. I'm from Harlem - came from Harlem to Hollywood. I started in New York in an organization called Third World Cinema, which was originally started by Ossie Davis and a gentleman by the name of Cliff Frazier. And Julie Dash came out of their Preston homes. Spike was close, but he was downtown. And we had a lot of - Bill Duke, you know, a lot of directors started there.

And so while I was there working and learning about film, Cliff Frazier was directing an afterschool special - his first directing effort. So he got all of us together, and I was the producer, and I didn't know anything about producing. But I did what I could. And it wound - well, I wound up winning an Emmy for it, and it was very exciting. That was my first.

CHIDEYA: Which do you like better, producing or directing?

Ms. BARNETTE: I hate producing.

CHIDEYA: You have to wrangle the money, wrangle everybody, huh?

Ms. BARNETTE: Well, you know, yeah. I'm a filmmaker. I'm a storyteller, you know? But I respect producers, and I think it's a separate art form. You know, I'd rather take a script to the lab and deal what my actors and deal with cinema and visuals and, you know, all that kind of wonderful things about storytelling.

But I'll tell you, producing is an art. And this is - I just finished executive producing an independent - totally independent. And it was something else, you know? But we got it done in the Cannes. You know, I've been directing 25 years.

And so this was the first time I kind of called on favors. And so many people came forth. It was amazing. You know, it's amazing when you make a film that has some kind of social or political landscape behind it, how people will get behind you.

CHIDEYA: Tell me about "Cuttin Da Mustard."

Ms. BARNETTE: Oh, it's my pleasure. "Cuttin Da Mustard" is a movie - I'm sure you've heard about the expression. If you can't cut the mustard, you know, get out of the kitchen or whatever. "Cuttin Da Mustard" is a movie about illiteracy.

It's a true story of director-writer Reed McCants who grew up in New York in the Lincoln projects. He was an artist, he drew. He went to the public school system. And then he went to junior college. But he had a very deep, dark secret: He was illiterate. He graduated from community college semi-illiterate. Then he wanted to be an actor.

And at that point, after getting people to speak into the tape recorder and him memorizing and trying to, you know, cover for his inadequacy, he decided that he was going to teach himself to read. So he locked himself up in the studio apartment at 21 and taught himself to read.

And "Cuttin Da Mustard" is about a group of kids in Queens who work in banks, you know, they recently graduated from high school, they work in banks, they work downtown, The Garment District, to have various jobs, and they all have a dream to be an actor.

They don't know about Strasberg. They don't know about the Actors Studio. So they go to this bar in Queens called Y'all Freaks(ph), and they have an acting ensemble.

And it's - "Cuttin Da Mustard" is their journey, it's a coming of ages, young adults for a rag-tag group of kids, multi-cultural, all races who kind of come together under the common ground of wanting to act and changing your life, you know?

CHIDEYA: So, Neema, what was the toughest part of putting this film together? And I know you said you called in favors.

Ms. BARNETTE: I did. Well, we shot it on 35 mm - I mean, the toughest part was getting it done with very little money and very little time. And that's always the case. But I've done 10 movies in 18 days. So even though I didn't direct it, you know, I know how to make it happen. After awhile, you just get used to it, unfortunately, you know? It would be nice to…

CHIDEYA: Contextualize that for a second. How long is a normal movie shoot? When you say 18 days, how does that stack up?

Ms. BARNETTE: Well, compared to - maybe a minimum of 35 days or 60 days, maximum 180 days or more, you know?

CHIDEYA: So you're talking on a tight, tight, accelerated, accelerated schedule?

Ms. BARNETTE: Exactly, you know? Well, what we did was we formed a co-op of filmmakers who had a like cause. The cause was to make movies that were about something, you know, because film is - let's face it, the strongest political tool we have, and it's a mind-molding business, you know. And images are very important.

And so we got together - and this was the first film, pardon me, I have a cold, this was the film out of our co-op. So we had a group of professionals who got together. They all own a part of the film. And so it's been an interesting journey for all of us, you know? We're very proud of the film.

And, you know, I needn't tell you the percentage of adult illiteracy in this country. So it's a very important issue.

And as I speak tomorrow night, we are opening the Harlem Film Festival, which I'm from Harlem and the filmmakers are from Harlem at the Schomburg, which I think is very fitting since it's about illiteracy. And next week, we will be at the American Black Film Festival on October 26 at 7 o'clock at the Beverly Center for anyone out there who wants to see it, you know?

CHIDEYA: So you're on an aggressive schedule. It sounds like you're making moves.

Ms. BARNETTE: Yes, we're making moves, and we have a great cast. We have Charles Dutton, we have Sinbad, we have Keshia Knight Pulliam, we have Adrienne Bailon from "Cheetah Girls," we have Wesley Jonathan, we have Debra Wilson from Mad TV, you know, the sister who imitated Whitney Houston, Bobby, you know?

(Soundbite of laughter)

CHIDEYA: Well, Neema, thank you so much.

Ms. BARNETTE: thank you. It was a pleasure. And goodbye to the audience.

CHIDEYA: Neema Barnette is a director, writer and producer. Her new film is called "Cuttin Da Mustard." She's one of the honorees this at 14th Annual African-American Film Marketplace. And the event continues 'til Sunday. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.