Interview With “Mississippi Damned” Filmmakers Tina Mabry and Morgan Stiff

AE: Tina, it’s obvious that your familial and cultural roots have a very strong influence on your work as a writer and filmmaker. Has your family and/or community in Tupelo seen your films?
TM:
When I was growing up I used writing as a means to escape some of the adult issues I had to deal with as a child. As a kid I didn’t have any control over what was happening in my life, but when I would write, I got that control by manipulating situations to go the way I wanted them to. If it weren’t for the hard situations I grew up experiencing, I wouldn’t be a writer. I think of my past as a blessing disguised as a burden.

With that said, my familial and cultural roots have an extreme influence on what I’m able to create as a writer and filmmaker. This is one of the many reasons why I enjoy showing my films to my family. I’m extremely thankful and grateful to have a family who champions my career — they’ve seen and supported every single one of my films, including the first film I made during my first year at USC.

I have to confess that showing Mississippi Damned to my family was a different experience. I was nervous and hesitant to show it them. I wanted them to like the film from a moviegoer perspective, but I didn’t want to cause a rift in my family because I chose to publicly reveal the dirt we swept under the rug. They knew I was writing the script and they knew we shot the movie, but visually seeing the completed film would be different.

Over the holidays I had a chance to share the film with my family and, thankfully, they loved it. It was difficult to watch certain scenes of the film because we had to re-live those moments, but they were happy the film was truthful and honest in its portrayal of how our family and several other families unfortunately had to live.

A few of my family members said seeing themselves portrayed onscreen was like having a mirror held up to them for the first time. They were able to see themselves as they actually were, which, by their own admission, helped them better understand the reasons behind their actions.

Tina Mabry

(Photo Credit: Scott Pasfield)

AE: You were on track to becoming a lawyer when you were going to school at U. Mississippi, then you wrote the novel Seven Days. Is that what changed your career trajectory towards writing and filmmaking?
TM: I’ve always had a love for films and I have my mother to thank for that. Movies were one of the ways we bonded; movies made us discuss things we had never talked about.

When I applied to the University of Mississippi, filmmaking was not an option, and I didn’t feel like it was a plausible career for me so I chose to go the law school route. I started writing a novel, Seven Days when I was a sophomore. I didn’t want to show it to anyone other than my best friend, and he encouraged me to show it to our African American literature professor.

I timidly gave it to her because I was afraid she would hate it. But she liked it and saw potential in me as a writer. She recommended me for a creative writing class where I could further develop my skills, and it was there where I really found out I had a great ear for dialogue and a strong sense of story.

At the time, I couldn’t really name any female directors because men directed most of the films I watched. Even though I was taking this class, I still didn’t plan on becoming a filmmaker but two films changed my life and showed me a door I didn’t think I could ever walk through: Boys Don’t Cry and Love and Basketball. These films made me believe that a woman could be a powerful filmmaker if given the correct training. I read everything I could find about Kimberly Peirce and Gina Prince-Bythewood in order to figure out what path to take, which led to me applying to the graduate film production program at USC.I used Boys Don’t Cry to teach me how to take a true story and translate that into a screenplay.

AE: What movies did you watch growing up that made an impact on you, or that you see traces of in your work now?
TM: Though it may seem strange, I was a complete horror movie fan as a child. I loved the thrill and the entertainment of those types of films. But when I was seven years old, I saw a film that has not only stayed with me for all of these years, but also unveiled emotions I didn’t know I had: The Color Purple. Twenty five years later and I can still quote that film, it had that much of an impact on me.

But I watched so many movies growing up it would be easier to list the movies that didn’t impact me than the ones that did. From Goodfellas to Terms of Endearment to Bastard Out of Carolina to 21 Grams to Amores Perros to City of God, a multitude of movies have influenced me in one way or another. I do my best to learn from them; I try to figure out why each of those films stand out to me. I think the common thread between all of them would be strong characterization and this is why I strive to have integral component in every movie I make.

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