Some of the world’s greatest human treasures, gems, and geniuses lie hidden in small towns and unassuming neighborhoods while being sculpted into strong vessels by some of life’s most challenging experiences. Tina Mabry is perhaps, the poster child of this notion, hailing from the northern Mississippi town of Tupelo where her childhood was pungent enough to alchemize her award winning film Mississippi Damned and go on to make Mabry one of the most sought after black women in today’s film and television industry.

HBR was honored to interview Ms. Mabry who gave us an exciting glimpse into her voyage from a humble indie filmmaker to Writer-Director-Producer of OWN’s hit drama series Queen Sugar created by Oprah Winfrey and Ava DuVernay. Alongside this work, Mabry also finds time to direct episodes of hit shows like HBO’s Insecure, USA’s Queen of the South, and Dear White People for Netflix, to name a few.

But life for Mabry hasn’t always been Hollywood opulence. When asked how her upbringing impacted her craft she acknowledges that growing up in Tupelo often felt isolated and like she was living in a bubble. “My family couldn’t afford to go on vacations or to travel, so I experienced the world beyond that bubble through watching movies and television,” she said. “My mother has passed, and my fondest memories now are sitting with her, watching horror films, and talking. We would not only talk about what was on the screen, but more importantly we would talk about life and her experiences. I cherish those time now more than I could ever express.”

Mabry also admits that during adolescents, there were really no stories on television that featured people who resembled her. “I got into film because I was tired of waiting for someone like me to tell stories I cared about. I told myself to just go out there and do it myself. Authenticity is very, very important to me,” she said. “Growing up in rural Mississippi, in an impoverished community, as a Black lesbian I didn’t see anyone on television or in film or even a figure in the media with whom I could identify. Now is an exciting time, there are more diverse people creating content and the result is more diverse characters in film and TV,” she added.

Surprisingly, Tina was once on the respectable path to becoming an attorney at the University of Mississippi. Although law wasn’t her passion, she was passionate about providing financial stability for her family which had never been a luxury up to that point. But as we know, that that would all change for Tina and the industry would soon be better due to her bold decision to follow her heart. “One night I took a break from my studying and rented two movies that would change the course of my life: Gina Prince-Bythewoods’ Love and Basketball and Kimberly Peirce’s Boys Don’t Cry,” expressed Mabry. “These two films had a great impact on me and awoke something inside me. I couldn’t shake them over the days, weeks, and months that followed. I kept reflecting on the fact that both were written and directed by women. Seeing their credit on the screen made another possibility an option for me. An option that felt more authentic to who I was. Because of Gina and Kimberly, film became a tangible possibility, not just an impractical and crazy daydream. This is why representation matters. If these women could do it, so could I!”

Now, with the increase of diversification, audiences are able to enjoy a richer palette of stories that reflect a more realistic view of the world than ever before. This excites women like Tina who are rooting for the inclusion of all people in stories and screens all over the world. “When I was watching Lena Waithe’s acceptance speech at the Emmys, I was deeply moved. Not just by her overall message or the Thanksgiving episode of Master of None that she won for, but by the fact that I knew there were young Black lesbians sitting at home, seeing themselves reflected back on a grand stage. That sort of validation is priceless. ”

Mabry’s career began in the independent film world with Brooklyn’s Bridge to Jordan and took off with the autobiographical familial drama Mississippi Damned. But the film was a personal story that proved itself to be a vulnerable spot for Mabry and her family. “When you make a film about yourself and your family, it is a frightening thing. We tackle some very deep and heavy issues in Mississippi Damned. I was scared of audiences judging me and judging my family. I struggled with admitting and branding the film as a autobiographical. It took a lot of introspection to get to the point of being okay with that; of exposing myself to everyone who watched the film,” said Mabry. “It was also difficult because you don’t want to claim that your experience is the experience of all Black people growing up in the south. When there is a lack in the variety of Black stories offered to audiences, a film suddenly becomes representative of the entire Black experience. However, one film can’t do that. I arrived at a place that I would embrace my story, be as honest and authentic as I could, and hope for the best.”

And “the best” did happen as the film went on to reach critical acclaim, winning 13 festivals of its 15 festival run and finally being premiered on Showtime. In 2015, the film was picked up by Ava DuVernay’s ARRAY which distributed the film on Netflix. “We made Mississippi Damned in 2008, it premiered in 2009, and I didn’t get a real break until 2015. The years in between were hard. If it had not been for family and friends who believed in my talent, I don’t think I would have had the strength to keep looking for a way to create and share my gift. Now that I have an opportunity, I’m trying to take advantage of it. I’m dedicated to not only telling quality stories, but doing it in a way that honors all of those who have believed in me over the course of my career.”

Many filmmakers who seem to be carrying a lucky rabbit’s foot in their pocket, striking gold everywhere they dig, and becoming “a success overnight” are, in reality, struggling to keep life’s boat from sinking under the intimidating and turbulent waves of the Hollywood system. Mabry is no exception and gave us a peek into the actuality of her big break. “I’ve always wanted to do both feature films and television. I applied to all of the television writing programs because that was a way I saw others getting an opportunity to improve their craft and get staffed on a show. Often, I would get to the final round of the application process for these programs, but I didn’t get accepted to the majority of them,” she admitted. “I was fortunate, however, to get into the Fox Writer’s Intensive and this gave me a great glimpse into what writing for television would be like. I also made some great professional connections. I didn’t get staffed after the program was over, but I kept hustling looking for any chance to get my foot in the door. It didn’t happen. I honestly fell into a very dark place where I questioned my ability and the possibility of ever breaking into this industry. Family and friends were there to hold me up; to tell me not to quit. Their encouragement pushed me to keep fighting and trying. Two weeks later I got a phone call from Ava DuVernay asking me if I wanted to come on to Queen Sugar as a writer/producer and if I would direct an episode. I jumped at the opportunity and will forever be grateful to Ava for giving me a chance to show what I could do.”

Now, Mabry’s work on Queen Sugar is rewarding and game changing. The beloved show, which has perhaps hired more female writers and directors than any other television show in history, made Mabry that much more excited to be on the team. “To be counted among talented directors like Julie Dash, Neema Barnette, Ava DuVernay, Aurora Guerrero, Victoria Mahoney, Tanya Hamilton, and Kat Candler is humbling and mind blowing” she exclaimed. “Whenever a person is surrounded by supportive peers, it naturally makes you feel more comfortable. Knowing we’ve all had similar hardships in this industry, makes you not feel so alone. It motivates me to make sure the next generation of female filmmakers do not have the same struggles and hurdles we have had to endure and overcome. Our industry struggles with what diversity really looks like and feels like in practice. But I am encouraged when new voices are given an opportunity. The more our industry is a microcosm of the world we live in, the more dynamic, limitless, and meaningful the stories will be that come from creative talent. The individual voices of women, people of color, and the LGBTQ community need a home and must be allowed the opportunity to be heard. This is how our industry will create a canon of films and television that are truly reflective of the American experience.

Not only is Queen Sugar a perfect home for Mabry as a woman, but the series greatly benefits from the storyteller who has the unique ability to take authentic experiences of the Black family and create compelling stories. “I am so appreciative that Queen Sugar was my first writing room,” said Mabry. “I did have to get use to the speed at which you have to write for television, but now I find that a fun challenge! Television moves fast and you have to be able to keep things moving forward as a writer in a room. Melissa Carter, co-show runner of Queen Sugar season 1, became a mentor for me during this transition, arming me with the information and tools necessary to meet the demands of being in a room. She was always there to offer advice, lead by example, and speak honestly about her own journey so that I could avoid unnecessary pitfalls.”

“Coming from the independent film world,” she added, “I wrote scripts without thinking about the length of every scene. I let the characters guide me and if it took eight pages for a scene to play out, so be it. You don’t have that luxury in television. This is why the speed at which you have to write is crucial; you have to be efficient with every word you write. You have to learn to cut out the extraneous and get to the point of every scene in the episode. Plus, you have to learn to write very quickly and still make sure your episodes are meaningful and nuanced.”

Ms. Mabry also enjoys working on popular series’ such as Insecure, Queen of the South, and Dear White People. When asked about her experiences in directing each show, she lended that each one of them present new challenges and growth spurts. “ When I’m directing, I always try to make sure I create a positive and fun set. I want to be that director that reminds crews why they started doing this in the first place. With the long hours and demands of production, it can be easy to become jaded. But after working so hard to get here, I’m going to enjoy every experience and I hope it is contagious. I mean, we get to create and play for a living! It doesn’t get any better than that. The majority of us (cast and crew) worked on projects where we weren’t being paid as we forged our way. We did it because we loved our craft. I remind myself each time I sign on to a new show how blessed I am to finally be doing what I love each and every day.”

Every day comes with a new challenge, along with racism and sexism and even Trumpism. But Mabry has her own way to deal with those obstacles. “I fight back with my work. I won’t let anyone stop me from achieving my goals. I just look at racist and sexist behavior as another challenge to overcome that will make me stronger. I stay focused on the work and creating the best content that I can, so that I get more opportunities, she said. “Watching the Emmy’s this year, overall, I was encouraged. Encouraged by Donald Glover, Reed Morano, Sterling K. Brown, Ann Dowd, and Lena Waithe’s words both on stage and in interviews after their wins. I’m excited about the future. I’m encouraged by the types of conversations we are having. In the Trump Era people are speaking up for what they believe in, in order to combat the hatred and divisiveness of his presidency.”

When giving advice to up and coming filmmakers, Tina Mabry encourages the “go” attitude.

“It might sound trite, but never give up! Keep pushing on because you never know what is around the corner. Also, just don’t wait around. Create your own opportunities when you can and really learn and hone your craft. Surround yourself with people who encourage, believe, and lift you up. Stay focused on the work, that will never lead you astray. Seek out mentors and establish good working relationships with your peers. And finally, when you do get your chance, don’t take your foot off the gas. Keep hustling and working to tell your stories.”

She is currently working on Adult Swim’s Black Jesus and is still directing episodes of hit television including Starz’s Power. “I’m excited about this week’s premiere of The Mayor on October 3rd on ABC. I directed episode 5 and had so much fun working with that cast and crew. I’ve got some other things in the works in the feature film realm, but can’t announce yet. There are also some exciting developments in television that are also hush, hush right now. So, let’s just say great things are coming and I feel blessed to be on this journey.”

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About The Author

CC Roberson is an award winning filmmaker who has written and directed a variety of stories from comedy/drama to sci-fi/thriller. She is a proud member of Yale University’s Storytellers in Modern Media Program 2016. Most recently she served on the crew of HBO’s The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks and the hit television show Greenleaf which is now showing on the Oprah Winfrey Network.

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