Catching up with Tina Mabry

It’s been nearly three years since I sat in the audience at Los Angeles’ Outfest film festival (full disclosure: I sit on the board of Outfest) to watch the film Mississippi Damned for the first time. 

The film’s depiction of the African-American lesbian experience was riveting, and I could feel the audience’s emotional response to the film’s characters all around me in the theater. That year Mississippi Damned won Outfest’s Grand Jury Award – one of an impressive 13 thirteen awards from 15 film festivals around the country.

The filmmaker behind Mississippi Damned is the amazing Tina Mabry. Mabry wrote the hilarious Itty Bitty Titty Committee just months after graduating from film school at USC, and received a standing ovation in theater at Outfest just three years after that. Named among the 25 New Faces of Independent Film in Filmmaker magazine in July of 2009, recognized by Out magazine as one of the most inspirational and outstanding people of 2009 and featured in the Advocate as part of their Top 40 Under 40 issue that year, Mabry has clearly established herself as a force to be reckoned with in film. 

I recently had the chance to catch up with Mabry and find out what she’s been up to since the release of Mississippi Damned. I certainly wasn’t surprised to find out that this prolific, creative filmmaker has been very, very busy.

Photo by: Mike Coppola/Getty Images

AfterEllen.com: Mississippi Damned was such a breakthrough film – what did you learn from the experience and how has its enormous success affected your work since its release?
Tina Mabry:
Mississippi Damned was such a priceless experience it’s hard to capture the ways it impacted me both as a filmmaker, and also as a person.  Mississippi Damned was the first feature film I directed and I have to admit I was a little nervous before we began shooting.  I was extremely fortunate to have two outstanding, creative, and supportive producers (Morgan R. Stiff and Lee V. Stiff) who gave everything they could to make the process as smooth as possible for a first time feature director.   They’ve been there from the first written script page all the way until today – without a break. 

Through it all I’ve learned that having a group of talented individuals who believe in the project is crucial to the success of any film. Morgan and Lee assembled a wonderful team on Mississippi Damned that was creatively and personally in sync.  The chemistry on and off set made a difference and that is something I will always try to achieve on all of my future projects.

AE: I heard you were recently admitted to the Fox’s Writers Intensive program. Congratulations! Can you tell us a little bit about the program and what will you be doing as a participant? 
TM:
The Fox Writers Intensive (“FWI”) is a highly selective writer’s initiative, held at the Fox Studios in Los Angeles, CA, from February 2012 through May 2012. The ten FWI finalists were selected from more than 300 nominations and submissions from across the country. The Intensive is designed to introduce experienced writers with unique voices, backgrounds, life and professional experiences that reflect the diverse perspectives of the audiences FOX creates for to a wide range of their staff writers, show runners, directors, screenwriters and creative executives. As a participant, FOX works with us to build on both our general craft and the business of writing for television, feature films and digital content with the added goal of creating a viable resource of experienced staffing opportunities.

It’s been a great experience so far and I feel that I’ve accumulated years of knowledge in just the past six weeks. FOX and Film Independent have been incredibly supportive of each and every participant and it’s been a truly wonderful opportunity. 

AE: Your next short film, Crossover, is scheduled to premier tonight (May 1) as part of PBS’s Independent Television Service (ITVS) FUTURESTATES project. Can you tell us a little bit about the film and what inspired you to tell this particular story?
TM:
Crossover takes place in 2028, in a world where “separate but equal” has been re-instated along socioeconomic lines. A struggling mother of two must decide whether to illegally sell her own organs in order for her kids to crossover to a community where opportunities are limitless. When she learns that her son’s autism will prevent him from crossing over, she has to make a heart-wrenching choice whether to allow her gifted daughter to crossover alone or to keep their family intact in an eroding, dangerous, and dead-end community.

The ethical and political issues I address in this FUTURESTATES short film project, mirrored my firsthand experience of the increasing gap between California’s public and private school systems during my time a substitute teacher many years ago. I’ve remained in close contact with an expert, a Special Education teacher in Oakland, CA, who helped me understand the additional challenges faced by children with disabilities. Since I’m not a parent, I talked to as many people as I could with children in public schools. While it was clear there was nothing a parent wouldn’t do for their child, the issue became more complicated when parents were faced with the dilemma of advancing one child while holding another one back. 

While the facts I gathered when writing this script both disturbed and saddened me, it all paled in comparison to my expert’s confession:  “Sadly, this script honestly depicts the dangers our kids might face in the future, but the really sad thing is that the dangers in this script are not that far off from the reality we’re living in today.”

Editor’s Note: Crossover made its festival circuit debut at the Tribeca Film Festival on April 24, 2012.

A clip from Crossover:

AE: Since Mississippi Damned was released in 2009, we’ve seen the release of a number of films showcasing LGBT characters of color, including Pariah and Gun Hill Road among others. Do you think we’re in the midst of a trend towards LGBT storytelling from the point of view of people of color? If so, what impact do you think stories from that perspective can have?
TM: I definitely believe we are in the midst of a movement where LGBT stories are being told from the point of view of people of color.  Elated, excited, amped – words can’t even describe how I feel about where we’re headed as LGBT filmmakers of color. While I have heard some in mainstream cinema suggest that these types of stories are niche and esoteric, I strongly disagree. I’ve always been drawn to stories outside of my community, so I believe audiences in general are curious, receptive, and drawn to authentic human experiences that evoke visceral feelings. Those types of emotions have the power to unite us all.  I’m truly looking forward to the films to come.

AE: I see that Mississippi Damned is touring college campuses now, are you getting different reactions to it with college audiences than you did on the festival circuit?
TM: College audiences and film festival audiences are definitely different; however, the responses are remarkably the same (although I have to admit college audiences hardly ever inquire about the film’s budget – while film festival audiences tend to be very focused on that). 

Mississippi Damned explores an abundance of universal themes and I believe that’s why the positive responses to the film have been consistent and uplifting.  What’s been exciting for us is sharing the film with such a diverse range of individuals domestically and internationally.  That’s the beautiful thing about it all.

AE: I understand that creative team behind Mississippi Damned is developing a new film called County Line. Are you involved with this project as well? What can you tell our readers about it so far?
TM:
County Line is the sophomore project from our company Morgan’s Mark (Owners: Tina Mabry, Lee V. Stiff, and Morgan R. Stiff). County Line is a feature-length father-son drama.  It’s about a small town sheriff struggling to connect with his increasingly estranged teenage son who finds himself crossing a moral line as he investigates the possible drug-trade related murders of local addicts and prostitutes. 

I’m the writer/director on the project with Morgan and Lee producing the film.  Morgan and Lee have once again done a great job of bringing a lot of the creative team from Mississippi Damned to County Line. (Director of Photography: Bradford Young; Production Designer: Aiyana Trotter; Casting Directors: Meg Morman, CSA and Sunday Boling, CSA)

We are currently in the fundraising process and we have received a plethora of support from organizations such as Film Independent and Tribeca All Access.  We’re hoping to make the film in the near future.

AE: What’s the best advice you’ve ever gotten as a film maker, and what advice would you like to give to aspiring film makers out there who might be reading this?
TM: The main thing I heard when I first decided to become a filmmaker was, “learn to accept rejection.” You will hear the word “no” more than any other word in the dictionary, but all it takes is one “yes” to get your project off the ground. That’s what I try to focus on as a filmmaker and not let rejection be interpreted as something personal. It’s just a part of the process of the film and television industry. Persistence, a thick skin, and talent are just a few of core things needed to sustain a career in this industry. 

As a filmmaker I feel that an artist should always have something to say with their work. Whether your approach is from a comedic or dramatic viewpoint, it’s what you have to say as a filmmaker that sticks with an audience. I would advise aspiring filmmakers to search for strong themes in their work that will resonate with audiences and stay with them long after they leave the theater. As filmmakers we want to stimulate conversation, awareness, debate, and entertainment; if we’re fortunate enough to have an audience walk away with that, then we’ve done our job.

AE: What films have you seen recently that have inspired or impressed you?
TM: Because my schedule has been so hectic, I haven’t seen anything at the theater lately. I’ve been watching a lot of television shows and reading tons of scripts for the FOX Writers Intensive. There are several films that have been on the festival circuit I’d love to see such as Middle of Nowhere, LUV, and The Last Fall.  I’ve heard great things about these films and I’m biting at the bit to check them out.

For more information on Tina Mabry’s projects, check out the official websites for Mississippi Damned, Crossover, and County Line, where you’ll also find links to each project’s Facebook and Twitter. 

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