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A story that couldn't stay locked up

Film director Neema Barnette overcame setback after setback to complete her women's prison tale 'Civil Brand.'

August 25, 2003|Andre Chautard | Special to The Times

Tears well in the eyes of director Neema Barnette as she pours out the story of the three years it's taken to bring her first feature film, the urban women's prison tale "Civil Brand," to theaters. "A lot of things happened during this project, but I was determined to see it through," she says.

Shortly before passing away, Barnette's dying mother encouraged her to do the film. During the difficult shoot, members of the cast and crew came down with pneumonia. Barnette was taken to a hospital for exhaustion. After the company that agreed to finance the film changed hands, the production was shut down halfway through, and a year went by before she was able to cobble together a completed movie.

So no one was more surprised than Barnette when "Civil Brand," a film she views as incomplete, began winning awards and playing festivals like Sundance and the American Film Institute. The movie, about a group of female inmates who take a stand against corrupt prison officials, opens Friday in Los Angeles. The film's title has multiple meanings, referring to the numbers issued inmates upon imprisonment and the stigma ex-convicts face in society when released, as well as being a wordplay on the Sybil Brand Institute for Women, the Los Angeles County jail named for a prison activist and philanthropist.

Barnette, 45, a veteran director of television and theater, thought the original "Civil Brand" screenplay by Preston A. Whitmore II had an interesting premise, "but it wasn't really the kind of script for me," she says. "It was a 'Caged Heat' kind of thing," with drug dealing and prostitution subplots. But Barnette was intrigued by a line in the script about a corporation visiting the prison.

Curious, Barnette did some online research and was amazed at what she learned: Major companies in this country are increasingly partnering with financially strapped prisons to employ inmates as cheap labor, sometimes in sweatshop-like conditions, paying them as little as $2 a day. Inspired, Barnette pitched a more socially conscious take on the project, and the producers approved. She brought on her screenwriter friend Joyce Renee Lewis to incorporate the issue into the script, and the two visited prisons and interviewed women who were currently or formerly incarcerated. For two of the roles in the film, Barnette recruited politically minded rapper-actors MC Lyte and Mos Def.

"We decided to do a switch and make it have something to say," Barnette says. "We wanted to prove that hip-hop's not only about bling-bling." But the North Carolina Department of Correction, which had approved the original sex-and-violence-laden script to be shot in its facilities, withdrew its cooperation.

"When they said that this film didn't represent them properly and I knew what the last script was about, I was really surprised," Barnette says. "And then I knew I was on to something."

The production relocated to the now-closed Tennessee State Penitentiary, where "The Green Mile" was shot. Temperatures at the unheated location fell below freezing during the shoot in December 2000. LisaRaye ("The Players Club"), who plays the main character, Frances, imprisoned for killing her abusive husband, says the cold inspired the actors to ad-lib.

"We would say, 'More heat! It's really cold in here! And it's leaking in here!' We used that." But several cast and crew members came down with pneumonia, the camera would often freeze, and Barnette was hospitalized briefly.

She felt the set conditions were unsafe but that the story was important. "My instinct was to close down" the shoot, she says. "But I didn't. I got up every day and I kept going." That is, until the production was shut down on the 14th day of a shoot originally scheduled for 25 days.

"Civil Brand" initially was set up at Trimark, which was acquired by Lions Gate Entertainment shortly before production began. Barnette says Lions Gate slashed the $1.2-million budget in half, told her to cut out two main characters and halted production before the opening and closing of the movie had been shot.

She says she was told to salvage what she could in editing and that she would later get five days of additional shooting. Barnette felt passionate enough about the project that she waited a year in Los Angeles for the extra shooting to be approved. She says she was told she couldn't accept any television directing jobs until "Civil Brand" was completed, forcing her to lease out her house to keep up payments and move into a cheaper apartment, where she remains.

Tom Ortenberg, president of Lions Gate Films Releasing, disputes that account. "Despite the fact that 'Civil Brand' actually went quite a ways over budget, Lions Gate was pleased to allow Neema to finish her film and to honor her artistic vision," he says. "We are happy with the final outcome and are thrilled to be giving 'Civil Brand' its theatrical release."

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