Miracle's Boys: An Interview with Ernest Dickerson and Neema Barnette
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By Wilson Morales
Coming out on The N, the nightime network for teens is Miracle's Boys. The show is the network's first-ever dramatic mini-series that centers around three half-Puerto Rican, half-African-American, orphaned teenage brothers living in Harlem, NY and their struggle to hold their family together. The mini-series, which was shot entirely on location in Harlem, will premiere in three, hour-long installments on The N during Black History Month. Miracle's Boys is based on the award-winning novel of the same name, by young adult author Jacqueline Woodson. Two of the episodes were directed by Directors Neema Barnette (Civil Brand) and Ernest Dickerson (Never Die Alone). In speaking with blackfilm.com, both directors share their experience on working on this series.
Did you think of any of your experiences growing up when you did the episodes you directed?
Ernest Dickerson: I don't know. I think probably, if anything, I have 5 kids, including 3 boys, and I guess part of would be that I hope I gave them the foundation that they can continue to go on and keep the family together if something happened to me or their mother and if they found themselves by themselves. My growing up was totally different because I was a single child. I think that's the main thing that I can put into it. I was thinking of my boys. Sometimes I would imagine what it would be if it were my sons in that situation.
How did you approach the project to direct the episodes?
Neema Barnette: First of all, we got the book. Before we got the book, Spike and Tonya (Lewis Lee) were involved, and we knew it was something very important that we had to do and when I heard the other directors that they had called, I said "He called in the warriors", and I'm the only woman, but I am a warrior. Once I read the book, I knew that it wasn't just important, it was vital that this project be done for a number of reasons. I was given Episode 3 and after reading all of the episodes, I knew what transitions needed to occur when it was my turn to direct. Episode 3 deals with what Tyrese had to sacrifice to deal with his family and stop them from being on the welfare system. You will know in that episode what his dreams were and how it was deferred, but temporary. I also wanted to tackle little pieces in Episode 3 that illustrated the love and foundation that the parents of the young men gave them. Little elements that would come out so people would say that the work they put out is not useless. It does work and it does come up. Basically, these guys miss their mama and Spike and Ernest beautifully dealt with that in Episodes 1 and 2. There are confrontations shown in which people don't necessarily say what they mean. The undercurrent of those issues which I tried to deal with in Episode 3 that in a way the audience can see is not about this. It's not so much about "I like this girl and this girl likes you", it's about "where is my little brother and I miss my mama". It about coming of age and dealing with issues that come up in life. I related to that because I grew up in Harlem and my father died when I was 12 and it wasn't easy for my mother to raise two knuckleheads like my brother and I. We had peer pressure and we had problems, but we made it. Very rarely do you see us making sacrifices to keep the family together. White, Black, Latino and Asian. People do it and with Episode 3, I wanted to deal with the touches of love that were there even though further episodes display more, and that's the way life flows, but the foundation is there.
How important was it to deal with a family that brought in Black and Latino roots?
Ernest: It was very important because most television shows don't African-American or Latino youngsters. As Neema mentioned, this isn't the "O.C". This isn't sunny Orange County, this is Harlem and I think that most youngsters in this country, regardless of color or race, are dealing mostly with the problems our kids dealing in Miracles Boys. They are not in a sunny environment. They are dealing with some pretty hard issues. It's a very dangerous world out there now for our kids, and they are wondering how they will fit in this world and how they are going to deal with it. I hope this show continues because there are a lot more issues to deal with and if this show can be a guidepost for our youngsters, then I think we have done the best thing we can ever do.
This is not the first time we have done a story about youngsters. What did you get out from doing this type of story?
Ernest: My whole thing is that most stories about young people is that they deal with it from a juvenile level. Kids are dealing with some pretty hard issues. It's a dangerous time for kids growing up; and it's a dangerous time being a teenager you're beset by so many forces and you are trying to figure out which way to go. With my first film, I tried to do an adult film for kids and that's what I love about this show. It's an adult show for kids. It's not afraid to confront some pretty had issues head on. It's not afraid to be dark. It's not afraid to let lightness that comes in everyday life come out of the darkness. Life is full of shift and tone and that's one of the things that's great about this show; it has shifts and tone. You'll have jokes in one moment, and then you'll have the next. It's just not one thing and unfortunately critics like to peg a show as being one thing. Is it a comedy or is it a drama. Well, life is full of both of that. That's what I love about the show. It's full of life.
Some folks assume that in the world of television, it's the writers who rule. Was that the case here? Or did you put your own stamp on this?
Ernest: When we came on board, no one said that there was a Miracle's Boys style. Neema recalls that when she did “China Beach”, she was asked if she knew the “China Beach style” and she was like, “No”.
Neema: Where I come from, as a storyteller, the script is very important and every story is different every week. At that time, I was 25 and I told someone that my story is different from the last one, and they let me do it. With every episode of Miracle's Boys, we had control of. It had a basic story and an outline, but we were able to adapt it.
Ernest: I think a lot of times and I've been doing television for a year now it seems like you have a lot of people who don't really have an ideal of what to do with a story coming in and maybe they are trying to make a transition from writing to directing, but in this case, they got some experienced people. They got Bill Duke, LeVar Burton, Neema, and Spike. In terms of telling the story, they let each of us come at it in our own way.
Did you feel that this was like a mini-film because of what was involved in the production?
Ernest: Yeah, no one tried to tell me how to shoot it. They just wanted me to hurry up. But that was it.
Neema: My whole experience with Miracle's Boys was tremendous. I have an apartment four blocks from the location. I was able to walk to work and I hadn't shot in Harlem since I directed an episode of Cosby Mystery with Clarence Williams, which dealt with kids and guns and violence. Clarence Williams played a jazz musician and his son picked up his friend's gun and accidentally killed a kid. It won a Peabody award. Strangely enough, it happened before Bill's son got killed. We shot that in Harlem and I love to shoot in New York, but working with these actors who were so organic to the material. That was another thing. The material was so organic. It was organic for Ernie, for me, for Spike, for LeVar, for Bill, and for the entire cast and crew. The actors were fabulous. They didn't have to reach too far to relate to the material, and that's exciting and that does not always happen. I didn't have to reach too far. I remember I was telling Ernie I had just finished an episode of the Gilmore Girls and I had to reach a bit far for that one. I'm not complaining but it was really interesting. Miracle's Boys is a part of me and it's a part of all of us. Although there were big budget limitations and big time constraints, I had to make a tough decision because I couldn't cinematically get the shots I wanted to get and if I did it's because the scripts were longer than the 22 minutes it wind up being, but you had to shoot the entire episode, and you knew that they were going to cut. I made the decision to deal with the spaces between the lines and the relationships between these three young men. It was a joy to do this and if you put yourself in our position sometimes as directors who work in all mediums to work on a series like Miracle's Boys, emotionally and physically, it's a pure joy.
With all of the episodes airing during the weekend, when folks tend to go out, as opposed to the weekday, why should we tune in to see Miracle's Boys?
Ernest: We can all go out, but a lot of our target audience is probably going to be home. I think it's a tough time slot, but I think this is a show that's unlike any other show that's ever been seen. It's not more or the same. I think kids want to see themselves on television. They want to see something that represents them realistically and I think when they are flipping channels they are going to the wrong places and they are connecting with the wrong shows. I think this would give them a place to go to. A lot of our targeted audiences are early teens and for a lot of them, they will still be at home.
Neema: The color of the world is changing and so has the color of the television viewing audience, so Miracle's Boys is a representative of what's happening. It's the heartbeat of African American and Latino people coming together and making babies and having families and giving love. It's a new day. Our audience will not disappoint us. Once you see something good on the screen, you are not going to change the channel cause you say to yourself that this is something you have never seen before and I've got to watch this. For those who are parents, we need to tap our knuckleheads and make them watch this. It's on during Black History Month and unfortunately that's the only time when networks will distribute money for programming. But in a good way and if that what takes and if that's the way it flows, then we have to flow in that direction and be excited that such important programming is being aired at all.
Miracle's Boys (Part 1) will premiere on Friday, February 18, from 9:00-10:00 p.m. (ET), with Parts II and III premiering that same weekend on Saturday, February 19 (9:00-10:00 p.m., ET) and Sunday, February 20 (9:00-10:00 p.m., ET), respectively.
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