Director Neema Barnette Talks Filming at the Schomburg Center and Her Trailblazing Career

By Lisa Herndon, Managers, Schomburg Communications and Publicity
February 28, 2022
Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture
Award-winning Director and Producer Neema Barnette filmed a scene from the show Harlem at the Schomburg Center. The program created a set inspired by the 'Rivers' Cosmogram and the 2021 exhibition Traveling While Black

Photos: Neema Barnette and Lisa Herndon

The camera pans down to show the outside of the Schomburg Center where Camille Parks is texting on the phone as she waits for former boyfriend Ian Walker and his business partner Louis. The three go inside the building to see the exhibition Soul Inflections and purchase artwork.
 
The scene is from the show Harlem, streaming on Amazon Prime Video, and the episode, "Secrets," was directed by Neema Barnette. Barnette talks about her directing career, why she wanted to film at the Schomburg Center, and how the village of Harlem shaped her career.

“When I read the scene, I said why don’t we do it at the Schomburg,” said Barnette, who was born and raised in Harlem. She lived at 141st Street and St. Nicholas Avenue, attended St. James Presbyterian Church, and graduated from City College. She still lives in the community when she’s not working in Los Angeles.

The set created at the Schomburg Center for the program Harlem featured pieces from artists such as Ferguson Amo.

Photo: Lisa Herndon

Barnette proposed filming at the Center to Harlem’s creator, writer, and producer Tracy Oliver, perhaps best known as one of the scribes behind 2017’s box office smash hit Girls Trip. Oliver supported the idea and encouraged Barnette to share her insight into the community with the show’s Los Angeles-based writing team, Barnette added.

Barnette also directed episode 10 “Once Upon a Time in Harlem,” the season finale. In addition to shooting at the Schomburg Center, she reached out to longtime residents to rent their brownstones to film other scenes for the show and local eateries such as Melba’s restaurant as caterers to highlight neighborhood locations in front of and behind the camera.

After seeing the Schomburg Center’s 2021 exhibition Traveling While Black: A Century of Pleasure & Pain & Pilgrimage, Barnette suggested the program’s Production Designer Javiera Varas use it as inspiration for creating the fictitious art gallery for the scene. It used bold colors and angled walls to show materials from the collections. The scene was filmed in the Langston Hughes Lobby in April 2021.

Murjoni Merriweather’s bust ‘Justice’ (in green) has hand-braided synthetic hair.

Photo: Lisa Herndon

“I wanted to make sure to include the Cosmogram and to mirror the colors on this space,” Varas said. “I think that really creates a nice dynamic feeling.”

Varas incorporated teal blue and yellow into the design. They are two of the colors sculptor Houston Conwill used when creating “Rivers” and the Cosmogram at the center of the 1,150 square-foot terrazzo flooring.

“It feels like what I’m bringing is, in a way, not competing, but going hand-by-hand with the space. And, of course, trying to honor the space, which is so amazing and sacred,” Varas added.

The set consisted of four walls with artwork covering the front and back. The names of the artists were listed in the upper left-side corner. A bust sat on the side of each wall. There was also a single teal blue wall with a description of the fictitious Soul Inflections exhibition.

Barnette and Varas included works by artists of color such as Ferguson Amo, Daryl Myntia Daniels, William Daniels, Victor Littlejohn, Murjoni Merriweather, Dareece Walker, and LeRone Wilson. There was also artwork by the fictitious artist Brandon Hines, who the Harlem characters discussed in the scene. 

Dareece Walker created 'Black Fathers Matter Series II: Future of America' using charcoal and acrylic on cardboard.

Photo: Lisa Herndon

 “To show that historical presence proud and strong in our community, there for people to research our ancestors and read about people, I was so moved and so honored that I had to take a little moment and shed a tear of joy and then go back out and do my job,” said the Harlemite of filming.
 
Poets such as Sonia Sanchez and Nikki Giovanni were some of Barnette’s heroes and she says she drew inspiration from their words. The Center means future generations have a place to discover and read their works. Materials by both are in the collections.

“I was standing in history and I mentioned to Megan (Good), Tyler (Lepley), and the other actors who were involved in that scene,” Barnette added. “I made this announcement to the background (actors) as well of how important this building is to our culture, to Black culture, and to the world.”

Harlem stars Meagan Good (Camille Parks), Jerrie Johnson (Tye Reynolds), Grace Byers (Quinn Joseph), Shoniqua Shandai (Angie Wilson), Tyler Lepley (Ian Walker), and features appearances by Whoopi Goldberg. The program follows four Black women living and working in the community of the same name.

Left-right: Meagan Good, Neema Barnette, and Whoopi Goldberg. Goldberg appeared in six of Harlem's ten episodes.

Photo: Neema Barnette

In January 2022, Barnette received an NAACP Image Award nomination for her work on the show’s season finale.

The nomination follows a list of accomplishments and firsts. The Harlemite won an Emmy Award for the 1983 ABC Afterschool Special To Be a Man. She made history as the first Black woman to direct a primetime comedy in 1986 with What’s Happening Now!, which also led to her first NAACP Image Award nomination.

In 1990, Barnette directed American Playhouse: Zora Is My Name!, starring fellow Harlemite Ruby Dee. The acclaimed actress's personal papers, photographs, and recorded materials are part of the Center's collections.

In 1992, Barnette made history again as the first Black woman to sign a three-picture deal with Columbia Pictures, which is now part of Sony Pictures Entertainment.

Her 2002 film Civil Brand won Best Film at the American Black Film Festival. That same year, Barnette won the Urban World Film Festival’s Audience Award and Special Jury Prize.

Barnette has received even more accolades in her career, which spans over three decades

Ava DuVernay, creator and executive producer of Queen Sugar, hand-picked Barnette as a director and producer for an all-female directing team for the program's first season in 2016. The Harlemite supervised and mentored the group. Many were making the transition to working in television.
 
Her recent credits include Luke Cage (2018), Black Lightning (2019), Paradise Lost (2020), The Equalizer (2022), and Naomi (2022).

Barnette and her husband, filmmaker and writer Reed McCants, serve as executive producers of the project Black History Mini Docs. Its YouTube channel and website feature 90-second videos to educate viewers on the contributions of Black people in American history such as writer James Baldwin, inventor Annie Malone, and Congressman Adam Clayton Powell Jr. It’s their way of giving back, she said.

Barnette is an alumna of the program Third World Cinema, founded by the late Cliff Frazier and Ossie Davis in 1971. Both were Harlemites. The program introduced Black youth to the film industry with a goal of increasing representation of people of color working in all aspects of the industry.

“I wouldn’t be where I am if it wasn’t for the love and support that I got from my community,” Barnette said. “I’ve lived long enough to give back all the love they’ve given me.”

 

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