A Mississippi Story: Writer/director looks South for inspiration

By M. Scott Morris / NEMS Daily Journal

Ten years is a sizable chunk of anyone’s life. Back in 2000, Tupelo native Tina Mabry decided how she wanted her life to go, and she wrote a few ideas down.
“I kind of revisited the list once every two years, just to look and see,” the 32-year-old said during a phone interview from her home in Los Angeles. “To be able to look at it now, it’s like, ‘Wow.’”
The daughter of John Mabry and the late Betty Mabry, she studied political science and psychology at the University of Mississippi. The original – and let’s be honest, sensible – plan had been to go to law school.
“Then I get to my senior year, and I watched ‘Boys Don’t Cry’ and ‘Love & Basketball,’” Mabry said. “They’re vastly different films. They’re both made by women, and they both affected me in ways where, I was like, ‘I really want to get into film.’”

She researched the lives of the directors, Kimberly Peirce for “Boys Don’t Cry” and Gina Prince-Bythewood for “Love & Basketball,” and realized it was possible for a woman to make a living by making movies.
“I remember watching horror movies with my family when I was a kid. That’s something we always did. I just loved film since I was 5, going to see ‘The Beast Within’ at the Lyric Theatre in Tupelo,” she said. “My dad didn’t have the luxury to choose what he did for a living. He had to get a job and support his family, but my sister and I, we do have that luxury.”
Her way forward was clear, if challenging.
“I decided – you know what? – if I’m going to go into debt by going to law school,” she said, “I might as well go into debt for something I love.”
That list of goals she wrote down included going to film school, and she graduated from the University of Southern California in 2005.
She wanted to make a short film, and Mabry accomplished that goal, too. “Brooklyn’s Bridge to Jordan” aired on Showtime in 2006.
“I wanted to write a feature film that would get made. I did that twice over, and I wanted to direct my first feature,” Mabry said. “All of that has happened in the past 10 years.”

‘Full-out drama’
“Mississippi Damned,” which Mabry wrote and directed, is a fictionalized account of her family’s life in Tupelo. It’s what she calls a “full-out drama” about breaking destructive cycles that have continued for generations.
“When I was writing it, I took time off because my mom had cancer, and she passed away,” she said. “I had to step away from the project. Of course, it’s about my family and what we went through, so it was a little close to home.
“I had a very good friend who told me, ‘You should start back writing it because it can be a very therapeutic way to help you with the grieving process,’” she continued. “Plus, my mom had kind of made me promise – I was writing it when she was passing away – that I would finish the script. So who am I to deny her wish and not do it?”
With financial backing from a North Carolina investor, “Mississippi Damned” was finished, then released in 2009. It has earned awards at film festivals in Philadelphia, Atlanta, Chicago, New York, Miami and more.
“We screened it in Switzerland and London,” Mabry said. “It had a great reception in London.”
The Hollywood Reporter called it “raw and powerful”; Edge Magazine said “ ‘Mississippi Damned’ is pure power all around”; and Ebony Jet Online judged it to be “brutally honest, extraordinarily haunting and deeply emotional.”
Mabry said that after some screenings, people have stood up in the theater and confessed personal secrets about their families.
“There was a good chunk of time when I was, I guess, embarrassed about things that happened in my past and my family,” Mabry said. “But after showing the film, I started to realize that we definitely weren’t alone in our experiences.”
The success of “Mississippi Damned” has confirmed Mabry’s ideas about filmmaking. She’s rededicated herself to telling character-centered stories about people who live on the margins of society. As far as Hollywood is concerned, the South could be considered one of those marginal places.
“I think to have stories that are told from a Southern point of view, people realized we’re not different from everyone else,” she said. “We do have accents, but everybody struggles the struggle. Laughter is laughter. Love is love. It doesn’t matter where you are regionally.”

Work to come
In addition to working on her own projects, Mabry has written screenplays for other directors, including a horror story set in England.
“I love horror films, you know, just from my history with my family and how we watched them,” Mabry said. “I’d never written one before, but I actually love the genre. It was a challenge to make something that was character-driven and make it scary. I did it. I think I did it. We’ll have to see, if they get the money together and get it made.”
Mabry said she enjoys branching out, as long as she can return to telling her own stories. She’s working on a script called “County Line,” about a Southern sheriff who gets involved with his county’s drug trade.
On Dec. 11, that movie came $50,000 closer to reality, when Mabry received a United States Artists Fellowship grant in New York.
“It was a shock that I got that fellowship. It was a good shock,” she said. “I’m thankful there are organizations out there that are willing to help foster artists.”
She also hopes DVD sales of “Mississippi Damned,” available at www.mississippidamned.com/store, will provide funds to help get “County Line” made.
Neither the grant nor “County Line” were on that list Mabry made in 2000, so it’s probably time to sit down and write another list.
Still, there’s nothing wrong with stopping after a 10-year run to appreciate where her cinematic journey has taken her.
“I’m fortunate enough that I wake up every day and that’s my full-time job that I do every day,” she said. “I sit down at a computer and create characters and create stories and live in an imaginary world. It’s great to be able to make a living by playing make believe.”

Contact M. Scott Morris at (662) 678-1589 or scott.morris@djournal.com.