+ By Desiree Smith-Daughety + Photos by Jeanette Kreuzburg
Rodney Barnes could teach an expert’s class on how to reach and surpass one’s goals. The brains behind a body of work in television, movies, graphic novels, comic books, and acting as well as a comic book publishing company (Zombie Love Studios) and a podcast, Barnes has traveled on a fantastic trajectory from his childhood home in Eastport to Los Angeles, becoming an award-winning producer and writer along the way.
One evening this past June, Mayor Gavin Buckley and his team presented Barnes with a key to the City of Annapolis. Barnes’ accomplishments were celebrated by fans, family, and friends, including people who have known him since childhood, who came to the stage to speak a few words, describing him as humble, dignified, and inspirational. “It was overwhelming—in a good way,” he says, reflecting on the celebration. When you’re here your whole life and you don’t really have expectations of something like that being part of your legacy or your life and it does happen, it’s always a surprise. But a good one. I think the thing I appreciated the most was seeing people I hadn’t seen for years—some in 40 years. It was all really a sentimental thing.”
Barnes is no stranger to accolades. He has won industry awards, including from the Peabody Awards and the American Film Institute, and was nominated for NAACP Image, Writers Guild of America, and BET Comedy Awards.
His range could be described as creatively ambidextrous, moving fluidly between diverse genres that include horror, sci-fi, sports, and comedy. He doesn’t differentiate one story or genre from another—he views them all as characters doing different things.
One of his current projects is HBO’s television series Winning Time: The Rise of the Lakers Dynasty. As an executive producer, he has a voice at the decision-making table and the ability to influence the story being told. Barnes, who also plays the role of the security guard Maurice in the series, saw this project as an opportunity to infuse something more into a sports-related story. He works to differentiate characters by creating their individual voices. The goal is to have an intrinsic issue, in which the characters are going through something emotionally, and an extrinsic issue, in which the characters have something practical that they’re managing.
In Winning Time, he adds layering to the characters to juxtapose with and differentiate from the sports-themed shows and movies that he watched growing up wherein the athletes were one-dimensional. For Barnes, this is important. “If the characters and the stories that you see of people of color are relegated to a one-dimensional idea, it almost connects to a larger extension of society where that culture is looked at as one-dimensional as well. You start to say, ‘Oh, that’s who they are.’ To me, that’s a disservice to what good storytelling is,” he explains. In Winning Time, Barnes wanted the characters to contend with life issues, giving the stories balance. He believes that sometimes television is the only vehicle through which people see others who are different from them; if those people are caricatures, then it’s difficult to develop any insight into how another culture—whether it’s women, people of color, LGBTQ, anything outside of the dominant cultural idea—operates.
These concepts and his role in them hit home while Barnes was on vacation in Bora Bora, in French Polynesia. “I turned on the TV and saw My Wife and Kids, a television show I worked on. The credits were coming through, and it read, ‘Rodney Barnes,’ and I wasn’t expecting to see my name in the middle of Bora Bora. I thought, ‘Wow, even here, this thing that I do travels,’” he says. “You realize how media can bridge nations and people. When you take that idea and condense it down to a smaller idea, you realize the power in it and that you’re affecting people’s perceptions. And if you can do that in a substantive way, you can build even greater bridges.”
Barnes’ roots are in Eastport. He describes it as a place where everybody knows everybody, and he attributes that connectedness to instilling in him a sense of being safe. “I think my imagination was able to grow because . . . when you come from communities in which the circumstances are more desperate, I think it’s difficult to focus,” he says. “I think imagination is one of the byproducts of stability, not something you can cultivate in distress.”
At around age five, Barnes became intrigued by comic books. His mother, a third grade teacher for over four decades, did her lesson planning at the Annapolis Public Library on West Street. He’d accompany her, settling in the children’s area while she worked. “I found a box under the bookshelves that was filled with comic books. I started flipping through them, and they were different—not ‘kiddie,’” he says. “Every week, I’d find that box, and the love affair started then. As I developed as a reader, I loved the idea of the action, the superheroes, the moral tales.”
He recalls that, during his childhood, there was nothing better than having a stack of comic books and a large lemonade and sitting and reading all day. This set the foundation for his understanding of graphic storytelling. “Something about that form grabbed me and still, to this day, holds me,” he says. “When I was young, my big sin was taking my lunch money, going to the store, and buying comic books—then figuring out a way to eat lunch. My locker was full of comic books.” Now, creating comic books and graphic novels has become part of his repertoire, which includes writing the eight-issue Marvel Comics adaptation of the Disney+ show The Mandalorian.
With great success come great expectations, for oneself as well as others. During the Key to the City celebration, an audience Q&A took place, and Barnes fielded a range of questions, from how he helps aspiring writers grasp a rung on the ladder to how he promotes environmentalism and sustainability. “I had an idea of how Hollywood worked before I got into it. I have a different idea of how Hollywood works, now that I’m in it,” he says, reflecting on the Q&A session. “A lot of people are looking from the outside in, and they have this perception that, because I’m able to consistently work at a relatively high level, that somehow I can change systemic issues within the industry. I can affect them by trying to do work that moves the needle, storytelling-wise. But the larger systemic issues are connected to our society at large, and that’s a massive undertaking to change those things. It’s bigger than me,” he explains.
Barnes believes that the way stories of racism are often told is by the spectacle of it, for example, the violent acts. “It’s either zero and nothing or that,” he says. “The quiet levels of racism don’t get discussed. They really don’t become part of most narratives in television and film. When we say ‘issues of race,’ it’s always something big, never the subtle things that affect peoples’ lives as much as the bigger things do, but do so in a different, more insidious way.”
He attributes his ability to analyze stories to another childhood hobby. Growing up, Barnes could select from six movie theaters in the Annapolis area. He would start the morning with Disney movies and stay into the night, watching films starring Chuck Norris or directed by John Carpenter. “I could see all these obscure movies,” he says, “karate movies, monster movies. Movies like Dawn of the Dead, that have become iconic, I consumed again and again and again.”
Barnes once had a fixation with New York City, and his perception of the city was fueled by New York-centric films, such as Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver. He’d always admired Paul Schrader, who was the writer and sometimes the director on many such films. Barnes also respected John Milius, who wrote the Dirty Harry movies and is credited for writing the iconic U.S.S. Indianapolis monologue delivered by the character Quint in the movie Jaws. “Even as a young kid, I knew who those guys were because I was sitting in movies,” he says. “Nobody wanted to go to movies with me because I wanted to watch them repeatedly. I would read who did what—who the screenwriter was, who the cinematographer was.” He notes how audience expectations have changed over the years and that movies such as The Exorcist might not be made today because it takes three-quarters of an hour before something happens.
Barnes credits the idea of becoming a writer to a high school teacher who challenged him to channel his class clown ways into story writing. “The way he presented it to me was, ‘You can do all this talking, but I bet you can’t put all that charisma down on paper.’ And I went and really worked hard,” he says. “I turned it in, and a couple of days later, he came over to my desk and said, ‘You know, if you ever decided to put as much work into writing as you do in being the class clown, you might one day be a really good writer.’ And it stunned me but planted the seed in the back of my mind to become a writer.”
Reading also influenced his future aspirations. He became a huge fan of the writer Stephen King, starting with the horror novel Carrie and then moving on to Salem’s Lot and others. In the mid-1990s, while working as a production assistant, he learned that The Green Mile, based on King’s book, was about to go into production. Barnes pursued the role of the character John Coffey so that he could meet King. A professional contact who was driving a 1939 patrol wagon to Warner Bros. Studios allowed him to ride along with him so that the movie producers could see how someone the size of John Coffey’s character would look in the back—and then Barnes could make his pitch. Ultimately, after a sweltering ride sans shock absorbers, he was hired to be the stand-in for Michael Clarke Duncan, who won the role, and he also got to meet King.
While standing in during an emotional scene with Tom Hanks, Barnes experienced an epiphany. He became so caught up in the moment that he forgot that they were rehearsing. “I looked at all of these people I admired—everybody on this movie was the best of the best—and I asked myself, ‘What’s the difference between them and me?’” He concluded that it was their level of focus and commitment to their tasks. “I went home, and I just started to work, taking classes, changing my friend group to other writers, and immersing myself in the types of film that I wanted to do,” he says. “I eliminated a lot of the clutter in my life to focus on my goal.” About 18 months later, he was hired for the Damon Wayans show My Wife and Kids, working as producer and writer. He continued to add other credits, including The Boondocks, Everybody Hates Chris, American Gods, Wu-Tang: An American Saga, and more. His productivity train has no stops, with more projects—and opportunities to infuse his insights and creative philosophy—in development.
“I think to be able to do a thing well, it takes repetition,” he says. “And sometimes you don’t immediately get a reward, so you must have something intrinsic driving you. Sometimes, the reward is in the work itself. I don’t think Hollywood buys writers; I think it buys voices.” █
For more information, visit rodneybarnes.com or zombielovestudios.com or
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