Tina Mabry Is Making Her Way
Gradually, filmmaker Tina Mabry is changing the film industry.
Though she’s been making short films and writing screenplays since 2005, Tina Mabry has but one feature credit to her directorial name: her highly personal drama Mississippi Damned, a story about one family’s struggle to cope with abuse, addiction, and death (all very real parts of Mabry’s experience growing up in the South). It took an astonishing six years to find a proper distributor for the film, though it premiered to warm reviews from critics and audiences at the 2009 Slamdance Film Festival.
“We were told that you couldn’t have two African American dramas on the market at the same time, because the market couldn’t bear it. That hurt,” Mabry said. referring to the fact that studios passed over Mississippi Damned to avoid putting it into competition with Lee Daniels’s Precious, which also performed quite well on the festival circuit (and went on to win two Oscars) in 2009.
Mississippi Damned finally made its way into the expert hands of Ava DuVernay and ARRAY, her film distribution collective, which seeks to find, foster, and release movies by and about women and people of color. Mabry’s relationship with DuVernay (who directed the brilliant 13th and Selma) is still in its early stages, but it’s been fruitful even in its brevity. Mabry chatted with me from her new staffer’s chair in the writers’ room of DuVernay’s upcoming TV series, Queen Sugar, which is set to premiere later this year on Oprah’s OWN Network.
The screenplay for Mississippi Damned is inspired in part by your experiences growing up in the South. Why did you choose to go to so many dark places with the material?
After I graduated from USC, I didn’t have a job, so I had a lot of time on my hands. I’ve always been someone who’s drawn to writing, especially when I was growing up. If I experienced any kind of traumatic event, writing was always my go-to therapy place, a place where I could express myself. So I thought, “OK, here are some things that happened to my family,” and I started to put them together in a screenplay, but I didn’t really know if it was going to go anywhere. But, my wife—and the eventual editor and producer of Mississippi Damned—Morgan Stiff, read them and said, “Why don’t you make this into a feature? Put it together. Tell your story.”
I don’t think I set out in the beginning to even tell anyone that Mississippi Damned was autobiographical, because I harbored shame about my background and the things that happened to me. I found out that, through writing, I learned to live with things. It was very cathartic in that way, but the actual production of the film was a healing process for me. It was a healing process for a lot of people in the cast and crew as well, because they had experienced at least one of the things that occurs in the film. We tackle a lot of deep subjects, which we tend to push to the back of our minds because they’re hard to deal with, but I felt like we never get a chance to talk about them. If you’re ever going to heal, you have to stop being ashamed of the things that happened to you, because you’re not alone and it’s not your fault.
Once we put the film together, I really struggled with whether to put the words “based on a true story” at the beginning. We started having test screenings, and people started saying, “All of these negative things can’t happen to just one family,” and I’m sitting in the back going, “Oh yes they did.” Once I talked to my family—the ones who were still living—to see if they were OK with [me releasing the film], the question then became, Are you going to say that this is your personal experience, based on your family, or are you going to say that this represents some collective experience of people in Mississippi? I decided that I was going to have to speak out on issues, expose alcoholism, poverty, and abuse, then I was going to have to own up to the fact that these things are part of my life and my tapestry. They’re part of my story. As fearful as I was, I owned up to them. At every single screening, I’ve had people say something about their experiences. I’m sad that there are so many people who can relate to the sexual abuse aspect. I’m sad about that number. But I am happy that Mississippi Damned opened up a discussion and that this film allows them to feel safe.
One thing that really moved me was, when we were screening at the DGA [Directors Guild of America], this older woman stood up and said, “I never told anybody, but I was molested when I was growing up. Thank you for making this film, because I finally feel safe enough to talk about it.” She confessed this in front of 700 strangers, and I was about to cry. I was so moved. This is what cinema is supposed to do. It’s supposed to change things. It’s supposed to highlight things. It’s supposed to have a meaning. Of course, it’s supposed to entertain as well—and to know that the film functioned on multiple levels, I feel like we were extremely fortunate to have so many things go our way in that regard, from a creative standpoint. Mississippi Damned is a personal story, but an expensive therapy for me. Yeah, make a film. That’s how you get over it!
Mississippi Damned premiered seven years ago at the 2009 Slamdance Film Festival, but it didn’t receive a theatrical distribution deal despite being well received by critics and audiences. Can you describe what that felt like?
It was emotionally devastating for me because we make films, but if you don’t have an audience to show them to, then why do you do it? That’s why I’m really appreciative to have been picked up by Showtime and to have this Netflix deal that Ava DuVernay put together. That’s the reason why we make films. Finally, we can share [Mississippi Damned] with an audience.
It happened to be a very difficult time when we came out [at Slamdance]. It was the recession, and that year [the Park City festivals were] half the size that [they are] normally. At the same time, Precious came out. Naturally, [Precious director] Lee Daniels had a bigger cast [and is a bigger filmmaker]. People on the marketing side loved both of our films. They’re different films, they just happen to both have African American leads. We were told that you couldn’t have two African American dramas on the market at the same time, because the market couldn’t bear it. That hurt. That was completely crazy to me, knowing that it was not true. That’s why I’m so happy now that new distribution models are coming out—it’s being shown that, yes, you can have two black films that are out there at the same time. [One isn’t] going to take away from the other. You’re doing the whole industry a disservice by holding back two films because studios don’t think one will make money, because the market can only bear one [with a black cast]. We all know that it makes no sense, so actually those are the things that hurt most . . . cinema transcends gender, race, sexual orientation, and socioeconomic status, and we saw on the road that this was true.
Did you feel a certain sense of validation, then, when Ava DuVernay picked up Mississippi Damned for distribution?
We have to remember that, as a film community, we’re in this together. Those are the times that I do admire people like Ava DuVernay, people who don’t necessarily wait to be invited to your table. They say, “To hell with it—I’m going to build my own table.” I think that is a beautiful thing and a very brave thing to do. I think more people should have that mentality. You can’t just wait for acceptance or an invitation. What are you going to do in the meantime? You can’t wait for someone to value your work or bless it by saying that it’s worthy to be seen. No. Go after it. Do it. Keep doing it. Don’t wait on someone else. Their validation is not what’s important. Do you feel good about the work that you created? Do you believe in it? If you don’t believe in it, no one else is going to. You’re going to have to live with that baby for a long time, and I’ve been living with Mississippi Damned for a very long time.
A lot of people are pushing for greater visibility in terms of race and gender and sexuality in the film industry. What is mainstream cinema to you right now, and how do you think you’d like to approach changing it?
I want to take stories that are on the outside, that people have either silenced or ignored, and give a voice to the disenfranchised. I want to give them a vehicle for their voice to speak. Sometimes, growing up, I was like, “Where’s my story? I don’t see my community or my geographical area on screen.” I personally waited for years for that movie to come out before I realized, “You can be the filmmaker to do that. You can help bring attention to the stories that you think have no visibility. You can be the one to tell those stories.” What I mean by bringing these stories into the mainstream is doing exactly what we’re doing with Mississippi Damned now on Netflix—that’s the mainstream . . . For me, it’s just about taking the silenced voices and putting them into an arena where a vast variety of people can consume that product.
Your voice is obviously being heard now, with the release of Mississippi Damned, but who are some of the other independent filmmakers people should be paying attention to right now?
There are so many. We should continue to support Ava DuVernay, especially as she’s moving to television now [with Queen Sugar]. Dee Rees, too. These are all the voices that were coming up together on the independent film circuit. I want to see what Cheryl Dunye is doing next. Gina Prince-Bythewood—that woman is the reason I’m even doing films. Without Love & Basketball, I would be in law school. Before I saw her film, I didn’t realize it was possible for a woman to direct a movie, and that’s a shame. I also look up to Julie Dash. I know [these women have] been doing stuff for so long and not getting a chance to really get it out to the mainstream, but to even have a woman directing theatrical films [is an accomplishment]. And so many more are here. We’re moderately moving ahead. We can’t do this by ourselves—we’re moving forward as a huge unit.