Writer/director Neema Barnette’s enthusiasm for her latest directorial effort Woman Thou Art Loosed: On the Seventh Day was evident in our very candid and lively interview. On The Seventh Day, premiering at the Pan African Film Festival this month as the closing night film, will hit theaters this upcoming April 13th.
The Award winning director is the first African American woman to direct a sitcom. Barnette is also the first African American woman to get a three picture deal with Sony. Since 1987, Barnett has kept herself busy directing several TV sitcoms, films and documentaries. Her TV sitcom work includes A Different World, The Cosby Show, 7th Heaven and Gilmore Girls. Among her film credits are Sky Captain, Zora Is My Name (American Playhouse Production), Civil Brand and Spirit Lost. She’s an Emmy Award winner for the after-school special To Be a Man, and also a winner of two NAACP Image Awards.
Barnette re-wrote and added several scenes and characters to the original script of the latest TD Jakes’ franchise production. She says she feels lucky to have been given the creative freedom to bring her unique perspective as a black woman to the story. On The Seventh Day, which boasts a cast of veteran and upcoming stars including Blair Underwood, Sharon Leal, Palm Grier and Nicole Beharie, unveils secrets and betrayals as a couple frantically searches for their missing child with the help of their community in the New Orleans bayou.
In our interview below, the very astute Ms. Barnette talks about her involvement in Bishop TD Jakes latest film, working with the cast and much more, including her current project called Buddha Boy, set to start shooting in the fall in Harlem, about a reincarnation of the Dalai Lama in the projects.
S&A: How did you get involved Women Thou Art Loosed: On The 7th Day? Did it come to you? Did you fight for it?
Well, the producers called me up and said they had a script and they weren’t interested in doing it. I read the script and I said, “hell no!” I didn’t want to do the movie. I was sitting in my Harlem condo, and I was working on this other movie about this black girl from the projects who reincarnated the Dalai Lama, and they said, well this is Bishop Jakes, it’s an independent film with Codeblack. Then I thought, well, if he can’t find anyone to go along with this, maybe I can. Then I thought about it. I re-read the script, and I called him and said, ‘Let me re-write the script.’ So I started to re-write the role of David, and I re-wrote a couple of scenes; I created the Sabrina character, a poor black woman whose child was also missing. I wanted to show the difference between poor blacks and blacks with money, and the distinction in social classes. This poor black woman couldn’t even get her little girl’s picture in the news, when Blair and Sharon’s characters could just call up the major; you know how that goes. I arranged a meeting with Bishop Jakes and I had a talk with him. I began to find out some of the things he was interested in saying in the script. One of the things was the counseling with couples; people feeling like they’ve made it financially and think they have everything under control, the wives, the mistresses, etc., and the somehow, something happens you know, and all hell breaks loose. The truth comes out. I thought that was interesting, about what makes a marriage strong. Also, how people go away from their roots, and where they came from.
I had Blair Underwood in mind for the role of the David the whole time. So, when I finished it, I sent him [Underwood] a letter and he wrote me back. He called me and said, ‘Barnette I like this movie, I like this role I want to do it.’ Then from him wanting to do it, that escalated the film way up. That’s what I was hoping for, instead of a straight to video movie with a script that wasn’t that good. I tried to show how black communities gather around their people, and how all these skeletons come out of the closet. I tried to deal with the fact that some of our people have what I call self-hate, instead of self-love. We came from so many things, I’m not saying everything is excusable, but I’m saying don’t forget where you came from because where you came from is a part of you. I wrote several scenes, one of them where we see Blair, and a detective who’s the old boyfriend of Sharon’s character that comes back to help them with the case. I wrote the scene in the bathroom with the two men talking about Sharon’s character. I did that because in the movie, this man tells Blair, “I know your wife better than you do.” Sometimes men don’t understand what they really have. I wanted the African American female character in the film to be a hero. If she can pick herself up once, she can do it again, and everybody has flaws, everybody falls down. Sharon ended up being such a jewel of an actress; she wore it out; she was fabulous.
Once we go Palm Grier to play the detective, I was like, ‘wow, we go the icon ‘Foxy Brown, Jackie Brown’ So, I called Pam and she said, ‘I know about you Neema; I love your work; I know you’re the first black woman to get your own.’ Who woulda thought it? And she said, ‘I’ma tell you what I’m going to play. I’m going to play a Bayou detective that can smell your hands and tell if you’re lying.’ And I said, “OK.” So she came down there with braids and her cowboy hat [laughs]. Working with Pam was fabulous. What a pro. She was so giving to the actors and to everyone on the set.
New Orleans is such a strange place. What I didn’t want to do was a religious film. I wanted it to be a grown up movie that deals with spirituality and also deals with some social and political issues. I didn’t have that much material to work with. If I could’ve written Pam in there more I would have. I was rushing in re-writing and re-writing scenes; I only had 20 days, and it was a tough one. I brought my crew down; I had Blair and Sharon, and it was like a bunch of kids without parent supervision [laughs]. We just made the movie in the moment and it was one of the best cinematic experiences that I’ve ever had.
S&A: There’s a young lady in this film that I’m a big fan of named Nicole Beharie. What’s her involvement in this film?
I wanted Nicole to play a role in another movie I’m doing. I found her when I looked at American Violet. I said, ‘who is this sister?!’ She was brilliant. When this movie came up, I presented her and they were like, “no, she’s not this, she’s not that.” I fought so long and so hard for Nicole. Finally, they gave in and let me tell you, it was the best move they ever made.
When I went for Nicole, I went for a quality young actress who was brilliant and they maybe wanted a different kind of look. They finally were happy that I did get her. She’s one of the most brilliant people on that movie. She turned that sucker out! You hear me?! She is fabulous and I knew she would be. When I called her, I let her know that I would allow her to do things with the role that she wanted to do. I think she’s going to be one of the best new actresses to tell you the truth. Let me tell you, she’s smokin’ hot in this movie! Just like we knew she would be.
S&A: Did the cast improvise some of the lines?
We changed lines everyday. We created art down there. It was like my old days at black theater when we did experimental new stuff. I wanted to make a real movie about real people and real issues, real conflict and grown up decision making and that’s what we did. I wanted to make a character film. My producer Jeff Clanagan came and said he wanted a thriller, “Kiss The Girls” on a million dollar budget – of course where you gon’ get that? Then certain things Bishop Jakes wanted I was like ‘Oh my God.’ So, in the re-structuring of the movie, I tried to juggle all these and if you know about re-writing, that’s difficult. I tried to make everybody happy and still get the movie across. It was such a joy to make an indie black film with black people that’s above the line and giving me creative freedom; I’m so appreciative of that.
Can I talk about Blair Underwood for a minute? Blair Underwood is the best, best, best. If there is a black male superstar that respects black women is him. That man had my back so much; I’m so grateful to him. He supported his black women on every level, so ladies out there..know that Blair Underwood is a real black man, strong, powerful. He just treated black women like queens. It was a joy to work with him. I think I scored on the cast. We have a different cast. It’s a unique film, nothing like it. I’m glad we shot it in New Orleans, because New Orleans is known for gumbo. That’s what “On The Seventh Day” day is.. a gumbo. There’s a bunch of good stuff in there.
S&A: How involved is TD Jakes in the project? Is he hands-on? Did he work with you closely?
When I finished the first edit which was 2 hours long, Bishop Jakes came by the editing room. He sent me a text saying, “Neema, you have re-created the story masterfully,” and after I get that message, everybody got live. He felt the re-writes were in good hands; he liked the direction I was going in. I had to take a few curse words out [laughs]. He was mainly concerned with the message of missing black children, social status within our own race and how so many middle class couples have lost their way. Bishop Jakes was great to work with. He’s a top-notch person.
S&A: We know the film is not a sequel. Is there any relation to 2004's Woman Thou Art Loosed?
This has nothing to do with the original film. That’s why it’s called “On The 7th Day.”
The film is shot in New Orleans, and because of the whole Katrina situation, I shot a lot of empty houses and the cemetery. I didn’t really have time to shoot a lot of stuff. So I took the images and compiled montages to help tell the story. I decided to create organic metaphors for each day of the week. I shot visuals of New Orleans for each day. One night I was up late and I was looking at the old movie “Bullit” with Steve McQueen and the had the jazziest credits in the beginning, and I said, ‘oh, I think I want to do it like that.’ I wanted to have organic cinematic images of New Orleans that represent what God did each day.
S&A: So what happens on the 7th day?
I can’t tell you that! You have to watch the movie [laughs].
S&A: Is this film part of a T.D. Jakes franchise? Will there be more films?
Yes, these are his films. I believe there will be more.
S&A: Are you working on anything? Has anything been scripted or cast?
Right now, they have asked me to look at Mrs. Jakes book called The Crossing to write and direct a film adaptation. I don’t have a contract yet. I’m going to be preparing something for Mrs. Jakes. I’m also working on a film called “Buddha Boy” about this girl from the NY projects whose four-year-old son ends up being a reincarnation of the Dalai Lama. It's a love story. This is a love child; the husband was a war hero from Iraq. He gets shot and she has to move to the projects. Hopefully, I can get Whoopi Goldberg to play the young girl's mother. That's how I found out about Nicole Beharie, because I wanted her to play the girl.
S&A: Are able to work steadily and earn a living?
I’ve been working consistently. I also teach in UCLA most of the year. It affords me to pay the rent and not take any directing job. I’m trying to develop my own projects but it’s always hard for any black female director. Most of my black female filmmaker friends and students I know are so talented and gifted. As long as you’re proud of what you do, that’s how you stay in the game. You can’t do it for money. You have to do it because you have a story inside you want to tell, or you find a story you want to tell it in a way that may change people’s lives. After all, our job is about coding and de-coding stereotypes, specifically of black women and re-coding it into some sense of our reality, and who better to do that than great black female filmmakers?