If you don’t feel that prison is not an ideal place for any amount of American Leisure, chances are you’re down for some seriously hard-core S&M horseplay. I’m not talking about mere chains and whips, I’m talking about Agony. Frolicking in a barrel of hot baking grease as you dangle from wires tied to the numerous hooks piercing every other inch of your flesh, while a 650-pound ballerina (who doesn’t believe in personal hygiene) feeds you green beans, all as metallica blares from a boombox and “American Idol” runs incessantly on a screen before you. That kind of wicked debauchery.
The rest of the conscious world prefers to avoid prison, and the truth is that most of U.S. will be lucky enough to never be referred to as “a guest of the State” for an extended amount of time. Indeed, less that 0.5% of the United States’ population lives behind bars…but since that accounts for roughly 2 million people, it is a reality that should not be ignored.
Cinema has done a pretty good job with this over the years, and subsequently has delivered a preventive tactic for many. At least for me, images like the shower scene in American History X, or the scene in American Me where the mobster’s son is introduced to that ungodly knife, will manifest whenever something comes up that could result in my arrest.
However, while those movies depict various horrors to be found when locked up, they seem to avoid another aspect of being incarcerated, and to be honest, it’s kind of understandable why they try to not tip over the can of worms known as the Prison-Industrial Complex. It’s not only a multi-faceted creature, it’s an extremely powerful and influential one. This is one of those topics that, if you’re going to explore on film, you better have a generous concentration of valor running through your veins.
Enter Neema Barnette, an elegant and brilliant woman with a heart pumping sheer grit. Born and raised in Harlem, NY, it seems as though she’s always been attracted to the Real things in Life, those entities that hold omnipresent relation to all people in one way or another.
From her professional debut in 1981, where she directed an off-Broadway play called The Blue Journey, her unrelenting drive has garnered an impressive lot of acclaim, from Emmy, Peabody, and Adelco Awards, to the Sojourner Truth Award she received at the Pan-African Film Festival in February 2003. Shortly after her first film, a strange rendition of Peter Pan (this time a suicidal Bronx native) called Sky Captain, she became the first Soul Sistah in the history of Television to direct a sitcom, with an episode of “What’s Happening Now?” in 1986. She’s since directed episodes of “The Cosby Show,” “China Beach,” and “Frank's Place,” to name a few, and she even worked on the always incredible “PJs.”
Still, Barnette is not simply riding some kind of easy flow with her endeavors, and her newest project is no exception. Civil Brand is a brutally honest tale of life in today’s prisons, and without Barnette’s vigor, the film would not have been made. Despite the fact that she’s a professor at UCLA’s School of Film and Television, as well as teaches a masters directing class in the graduate program at USC, Barnette had to work against powerful odds to get this Message out. After all, the Mainstream doesn’t want to hear that the clothes on our backs quite possibly came from American sweatshops, for that might put an uncomfortable aura on the next jaunt to the mall.
But it’s the truth, and with the Corrections Corporation of America being one of the most traded stocks on the New York Stock Exchange, things will only get more aggressive.
Without castigating the entire existence of Prison as evil, Civil Brand gives a taste of what often goes on when Humans become State Property. And guess what? Women go to Prison too…
Far too long ago (this was at the 2003 Sundance Film Festival), I got the honor to talk with Neema about Civil Brand:
Did you get some serious animosity from prisons, or even Wall Street for that matter?
Neema Barnette: Not Wall Street. When I went to do some research, I went on a tour of a prison in North Carolina, and I got a call saying that, "We just got a call from the Corrections Corporation of America, and their senior vice-president of publicity is flying in to take the tour with you." And I was like, "What? Do they know that this is not a Hollywood movie, but just some cheap little independent thing?" So I waited for him to come, and we took the tour.
I interviewed five women on death row, in an external part of the prison, and he was right there with me. And they [inmates] were talking about the prison and their experiences, and one young woman said, "When I first got here, the food was very good, but now it's just bad, it's terrible."
And he says, "Oh, excuse me, she doesn't mean terrible. She means different." And then he says, "Do you have enough?"
I said, "No, I'd like to..." and he said, "Well, you know, I think this tour is over."
So, I left, and that was that, that was that.
Before I took the project on, the original script that was written by Preston Whitmore had been sent to North Carolina to a small prison that was closed down, and they were approved to shoot there. It was a perfect little prison for the movie, since there was low money for the movie, and we didn't have the money for the extras.
When I came on the project and rewrote the script, a day and a half after I submitted my version, we got a letter saying, "You absolutely cannot shoot this script in this prison." This came from the Corrections Corporation of America.
They said we improperly represented prisons, and I said, "Well, how can they say that? In his script, they were screwing women..." The main difference was political; it was that our script highlighted the Prison-Industrial Complex, and the old script didn't.
Then we went to Nashville, to that prison where they shot The Green Mile. That's when I went back and did a little work on the script, because I knew that if I gave them the script I had, I wouldn't be able to shoot this movie in any prison.
So, we shot the film. Then, when we were at the hotel down there, I got a call- there were about 500 people picketing outside our hotel. And I said, "Oh my God, they busted me." I didn't know who it was. Come to find out, in that hotel that weekend, they were having a conference, all the corporations who owned prisons in America attended the conference, and people from San Francisco had organized a movement to picket those people.
So I said, "Ok, this is an omen."
I don't know what the response is going to be, but so far, the issue of slave labor in prisons, corporate takeovers/prison-for-profit, has generated the most dialogue.
It's about time. I mean, you look at films like Shawshank Redemption, or something like that, and yeah, there's an underlying theme of Prison Labor, but it's more in the context of "yeah, they're working, but they're convicts," and it doesn't go much farther than that.
NB: That's very true; that's an excellent point. I studied all the prison films before I did this, and I watched Shawshank, and even Birdman of Alcatraz, and each of them had some small level storyline that dealt with the Prison-Industrial Complex, but it was so minor, and you automatically assume that they're making license plates, or they're making this and that, and so it's easy to cover that issue up.
Even from the time I started working on the film until now, it's worse. We need to have a check-and-balance system with this; it's gotten real out of hand. It has really become a modern plantation. It used to be a plantation when prisons originally opened up, but now, it's just out of control. And I saw in a lot of the older prison films a back-story, like in Shawshank, the whole business thing with the warden, but there it's construction. With Civil Brand, it's a little more in your face.
Everything we did in Civil Brand is taken from the truth, from interviews and from facts. You know, at one of the screenings, someone asked me, "Oh, but the warden was black, that's horrible, that Black-on-Black violence. Did you do that because it was true?"
And I said, "Yes. You know, white wardens do it to black and white and other ethnicities. It's Violence-on-Violence, period."
Yeah, it's not as much of a color issue; they're just workers.
NB: Exactly, it's workers...but they can't quit their jobs. Or like Wet says in the very beginning, when they're waiting in line to get in, and Little Momma's telling Frances what you have to do, and she says, "Oh, no, but that can't be legal." And Wet turns around and says, "Hell no, that shit ain't legal; slave-drivin' muthafuckas. Welcome to the Plantation." Bang!
I wish I could've been able to shoot the factory scene, but I didn't have the time. One scene I'm really sorry I didn't put in that was taken from my research is when Wet gets that scar on her face, after she spits on a guard. I had a scene where I wanted to take her down in the basement with the women in their underwear, and what they're doing is they're tearing off Made In Honduras labels, and then sewing on Made In America. That's illegal, and that's what they're doing in prisons. So that's one scene that I wanted to get in, but I couldn't. They shut me down.
There were a lot of little editing tricks to try to stylize it. Like, Mos Def at the computer, with the information on his monitor. With the computer words there, I wanted to subliminally get that in, so I put it in a second time. Plus, I ran out of footage [laughs]. You'll see that I reused a lot of footage, I used every frame I shot.
When I was back in the editing room, I was like, "What kind of movie can I make from this? I don't have the scenes." And then we came up with that idea that, if we could get Da' Brat to come back for a day, give her some voice-overs and shoot her on camera, 'cause she's good. And I'd break the third wall, and have her speak directly to the camera, maybe we can piece the movie together. And that's how we did it.
I waited a year for the other five days and they never came, 'cause they didn't get the film, at all. They thought it was a black-girl-prison-sex movie, 'cause they never read the script, because we were purchased in a merger. Lions Gate bought the company, and they didn't have a clue. They heard, "black director, black-girl-prison script," and then when they saw the cut, they said, "Neema, what is this? Do you have a copy of the script?"
And I said, "Yeah, and I need five days to shoot these scenes."
And they said, "Well, you're forcing people to think."
And I said, "Look, it's not the wash, and it's not state property."
"Well, what is it?"
"It's something different, it's just something different."
Still, with what you had, you were obviously pushing buttons; it shows that you weren't just making stuff up.
NB: Right. When they closed us down in North Carolina, that was the first time I thought to myself, "You know what, Neema? This is a bigger issue than you thought it was."
I tried to put some humor in the film. It helps the audience with the movie, because it's such a powerful subject. I mean, women have babies in prison, they're not allowed to hold their babies, and they're chained to the bed. Women have miscarriages at night because the guards don't come when they call them. That's real.
Had you thought of having them actually take over the entire prison?
NB: That was what the script was, because the ending was 17 pages long. They were gonna take over the whole prison, but I had to cut six characters when I was in Nashville because they cut my budget, I had no money. I shot the beginning of the ending with Mos Def in Nashville, then they closed me down. So that whole second part, I had to shoot in that one day, they gave me no money, no extras, and I had nothing to cut to.
But yeah, there was originally a big takeover, and they were planning it, and it catapulted into a really major strategized thing, but I couldn't do it in just one day. So I said, "Ok, we'll just go from the heart of these girls. They don't know what to do, but they're gonna try."
That's why I cut back to the shots intercut with them against the bars and everything, so the audience could feel their frustration and feel their youthful impetuousness and anger at the moment, when Wet takes up the gun, and suddenly they're in the middle of this. These young women did never intend to take over a prison. They're young like you, and to me, Revolution is built on Youth, because Youth has Hope.
And, you never know. Movies can make a difference, J.F.K. is a great example of that.
NB: It is, and I hope it does. I mean, I never thought that we would get the audience that we have. I was just trying to reach a certain audience, but this is even better. This is so much bigger for us.
At the same time, the younger audience will get it, absolutely, they're gonna get it. I mean, when I sent Da' Brat a rough cut, she called me and left me a message, she said, "Neema, I love this fuckin' movie!"
I never in my fondest dreams thought it would ever get in any film festival, because I didn't think it was a film festival film. You know, I made it for the kids who go steal money to go buy Donna Karan clothes, and then wind up in jail making those clothes. That's the message I wanted to get across, and I wanted to put a spotlight on it, 'cause I'm not a politician, I'm an artist. It's a free society, hopefully we're trying to keep it that way, and people make their own decisions. All I'm trying to do is put the information out there, and then they can read it and go make their decisions.
What's Harlem Lite Productions?
NB: Harlem Lite Productions is my little production company that I started before I came out to AFI. I'm a Harlem girl, and it was just my production company that was created to do short films about Harlem. My father's a jazz musician, and I've come to know so many wonderful people, all these old jazz artists in this area called Sugarhill in Harlem, and I always wanted to do short stories and shoot them in black and white. I created that company for that.
Since then, we have started a website called LiveTheatreGang.com, because my daughter's a playwright, and she won a Drama Desk Award at 19. She wrote this play called Cafe Millennium, about a group of multi-ethnic spoken-word poets, who have this little club in a basement, and through their poetry, they express what's going on in their lives. And so we decided to mount that for her, because I thought it was good. It ran for two years in New York at the New York Comedy Club on 22nd Street, and actors kept coming and she kept writing and other young people had good plays, so we just opened up the theater. So, if you go to the site, you'll see what we're doing now.
Civil Brand offers a fresh look at the Prison-Industrial Complex, attacking the issue from several different angles. For one thing, the inmates aren't working on roads or some kind of community service- they're making clothes for department stores. A more provocative approach, though, is the fact that these slaves are female, a scenario that folks are not used to considering. Outstanding performances by LisaRaye, Mos Def, Clifton Powell, MC Lyte, Monica Calhoun, Lark Voorhies, and the sensational N'Bushe Wright (the lady Panther from Dead Presidents who is one of the most talented people acting in Cinema today, not to mention drop-dead gorgeous), powerful cinematography, and brutal honesty come together to make Civil Brand not just a great movie, but an extremely important one.