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Ole Miss Alumni Review: It Only Takes One Yes

Photo by John Brawley

As she stands behind the camera directing her latest project, alumna Tina Mabry (BA 00), writer and director for film and television, reminds people on set to have fun and be grateful for the opportunity to be doing what they all love.

“That’s the one thing I’ve said about film is have fun with it,” Mabry says. “If you’re on my set, you’re going to have a good time – you’re going to get work done and make something great – but you’re going to have fun doing it. I tell people to remember where we all came from when we all did this for free because we loved it.”
Growing up in Tupelo, Mabry never knew it was possible for an African-American female to write and direct her own movies.
“I’m the kid that grew up playing with Happy Meal toys,” Mabry says. “I was 4 years old and would have my own little sitcoms. It was the craziest thing ever. Who thinks that what you’re doing at that age is going to be possible, but sometimes that’s how far life takes you. Film and television opened up a world for me because I couldn’t afford to travel, but I could live it through watching it on a screen.”
After graduating from Tupelo High School in 1996, Mabry narrowed her college choices down to Ole Miss and Howard University. When her mother became ill, she knew she wanted to be close by in Oxford.
A political science major and member of Zeta Phi Beta Sorority, Mabry had every intention of enrolling in law school after finishing her undergraduate degree. But a break from studying for the Law School Admission Test proved to be too powerful to ignore.
“I had my LSAT prep book, and I stopped and said I’m going to watch movies,” Mabry recalls. “I watched two movies I had never seen before: ‘Love and Basketball’ by Gina Prince-Bythewood and ‘Boys Don’t Cry’ by Kimberly Peirce. After watching those two films, it impacted me in a way that I realized I couldn’t go to law school.
“I’ve always loved film, and it never seemed like a real thing. But when I saw at the end of the film written and directed by, and it was a woman’s name, it was like it became something real that I could actually achieve.”
Mabry threw away her LSAT book and immediately started researching Prince-Bythewood and Peirce to find out where they attended film school. Four schools emerged that were highly regarded: University of California, Los Angeles; Columbia University; University of Southern California; and New York University.


The cast and crew of ‘Mississippi Damned’ at Slamdance Film Festival.

After applying to all four, Mabry set a “D-Day” departure date to leave Mississippi and move to Los Angeles regardless of the outcome of her applications. After being rejected from three schools, she stuck to her plan and began the long drive out west on May 26, 2001.
“I got my LA apartment online and had an unpaid internship for a management company set up, so I drove across the country with my dad and a U-Haul,” Mabry says. “I had no paying job, so I became a telemarketer. I came home after work one day and got my letter from USC saying, ‘Congratulations, you got in.’”
Juggling three jobs to make ends meet while attending school as a full-time student, Mabry graduated from USC’s School of Cinematic Arts in 2005 with a Master of Fine Arts in film production.
“I met Tina while we were both attending graduate school at USC,” says Morgan Stiff, Mabry’s wife, producing partner and co-founder of Morgan’s Mark, a production company and editing facility. “I remember watching Tina go through the process of making her first short film, ‘Brooklyn’s Bridge to Jordan.’ I’ve never seen someone have so much drive and determination. I was struck by her writing most of all. She is a master of dialogue and can pull out such powerful performances from actors.”
Mabry was soon offered a chance to co-write a feature script, but the genre was comedy and her forte was drama.
“It was completely out of my wheelhouse,” Mabry says. “But it’s a feature film, and somebody wants me to co-write. It wasn’t for any money, but I got a chance to at least get my name on a feature. When you come out of film school as a writer [and] director, chances are you’re going to be unemployed unless you learn a trade while you’re there to sustain you while you’re trying to become a paid writer [and] director.”
Mabry ultimately accepted a job working with troubled teens at a local group home for boys. She didn’t realize at the time that her experience there and the skills she honed would later enable her to become a better writer and director.
“I stayed there for two-and-a-half years and never had to restrain one kid,” Mabry says. “I was able to talk to them and truly understand where they were coming from. That skill set of learning to deal with different personalities and talk people off a ledge really helps me as a director because that’s basically what you’re doing; you’re trying to talk everyone off a ledge on a daily basis.
“I tell people, look, I know you think this film is going downhill and off the rails, but I promise you we’re going to live.” Her experience at the group home even served as material for a television series pilot that opened doors for her to get other jobs.

Overcoming Adversity

Around the same time, Mabry’s mother, Betty, was diagnosed with cancer. Mabry spent her nights at the home while the boys were asleep working on a screenplay for “Mississippi Damned,” a feature film based on her own life experiences about three kids struggling to break the destructive cycles of their family.
But with her mother’s diagnosis, finishing the feature became a challenge.
“Every time I wrote, if that character that was close to my mom ever got sick or something was going to happen to that character, I’d stop the story and never finish it,” Mabry says.
“I felt that if I wrote about her health, I was going to somehow bring something bad. In going back and forth from LA to Tupelo to visit her, I told her I was writing a story about our family and I couldn’t finish it because her character is supposed to die. She said, ‘Promise me this. However it’s supposed to go, that’s how you write it. If my character dies, it dies, but I want you to promise me you’ll make this film and finish this script.’”
A few weeks later, her mother passed away, leaving Mabry with an unfinished script and a wealth of pain that was too great to allow her to confront the end of her story. On the advice of a friend who went through a similar experience, she slowly began to finish the script and found the process cathartic.
“Within three years of my mom asking me to make her that promise that we would make that film, we did.”
With her first feature film completed, Mabry began shopping it around only to find that during the recession in 2009, distributors were being very frugal when it came to buying films.
“Also at that time, the film ‘Precious’ was coming out, and every distributor said your film is great, we love it, but we’re afraid the market can’t bear two black dramas at the same time,” Mabry recalls.
“I’m like, what? Hearing that film audiences can’t take two black dramas a year was one of the craziest things I’ve ever heard. Just sitting in those meetings knowing you had a good product that people loved and watched over and over again and kept talking about years later, but you can never get a chance to get across that door. It really hurt.”
It didn’t take Mabry long to learn that rejection is part of being in the business. Thick skin and resilience in the face of adversity are crucial qualities for any aspiring filmmaker to have.
“I still have the three [film school] rejection letters,” Mabry says. “I kept them to remind myself that it only takes one yes. You’re going to go through life and get a lot of nos, a lot of push back, a lot of hurdles, but all you need is one person to say, ‘Yes.’”

Speaking Her Truth

Left: Mabry on the set of USA Network’s television series ‘Queen of the South.’ Photo by John Brawley. Right: Mabry and her wife, Morgan Stiff, at Slamdance Film Festival.

Unable to catch a break, Mabry continued to write, and much to her satisfaction, “Mississippi Damned” continued to do well on the film festival circuit, winning 13 awards including Best Feature Film and Best Screenplay. It premiered on Showtime Networks in February 2011 and is available on Netflix.
“I couldn’t be more proud [of her],” Stiff says. “I know how hard she has worked. I’ve been with her during every setback, both personal and professional. I’ve watched her rise to the occasion time and time again.”
The film toured the country, giving Mabry a safe vehicle to speak her truth. The feedback from moviegoers was stunning, with many approaching her with their own similar, painful stories that they were unable to talk about previously.
“One of the things that was really frightening for me in writing the film was not only worrying about what happens to my mom’s character but being a survivor of sexual abuse,” Mabry says. “It’s something you don’t talk about. You sweep it under the rug, and this film exposed all of that.
“I could [tell my story] through film because that was a safe spot for me, but I didn’t want my family to be criticized. It was a tough film to watch because of the realism and what you see this family go through, and I didn’t want to put them through that. But they have been so supportive in me making it, and I’m so grateful for that.”
Unable to support herself with the film alone, Mabry took a position as an adjunct faculty member for the Art Institute in North Hollywood in 2010 and California State University in 2013. By 2015, she hit a wall and began to doubt whether she wanted to continue in the industry that handed her a litany of nos.
With the support of friends and her wife, Mabry decided to hang in there a little while longer. A mere two weeks later, she received a phone call from Ava DuVernay, creator of the American drama series “Queen Sugar,” that jolted her career.

Rising Star

Mabry attends the 69th annual Directors Guild of America Awards in Beverly Hills, California. Photo by David Crotty/Getty Images.

Much to Mabry’s surprise, DuVernay asked her to direct episodes of the series airing on the Oprah Winfrey Network. Mabry jumped at the opportunity.
“Oprah’s producing it, and we’re both Mississippi natives telling a Southern story in that series, so it was perfect,” Mabry says. “Two weeks before I was ready to give up, something came through. It was a gift. That’s why I keep going back to how it doesn’t matter about the nos, it’s the one yes.
“I’m just so grateful for Ava and the opportunity with the show. She hired all females, and every last one of us has been working ever since. What she and Oprah did was kick open a door and said we’re going to give them a chance. It really galvanized and changed things.
“Of course, you can have a TV show completely run by a woman that women are directing that can still be good. To eliminate those prejudices and the bigotry that comes along with it is huge in an industry that is extremely male dominated.”
Throughout her career, Mabry has met many people that influenced her life. But perhaps most meaningful was getting to meet the two women who unknowingly gave her the ambition and determination to pursue a career in film.
“I’ve met both Kim [Peirce] and Gina [Prince-Bythewood],” Mabry says. “They’re my mentors. I’m not much of a crier, but when I met them both, I thought I’m definitely going to cry because they changed my life.”
Peirce couldn’t be more pleased to see Mabry’s success and is proud to count her as a close friend.
“She’s super talented and committed,” Peirce says. “She’s one of the good ones who you want to see succeed. I see the warmth, drive, brilliance and comradery in her, so she’s a real inspiration to me. She’s a great addition to our community, and it’s a pleasure to have her as a friend.”
Mabry has written, directed and produced numerous television and film projects, racking up awards along the way including the Directors Guild of America Award for Outstanding Directorial Achievement in Children’s Programming (2017); Tribeca All Access Creative Promise Award for “County Line” (2011); the James Baldwin Fellow in Media by United States Artists (2010); Chicago International Film Festival Best Screenplay Award for “Mississippi Damned” (2009); and Filmmaker Magazine: 25 New Faces of Independent Film (2009).
“One thing I’m passionate and diligent about is that no one does this by themselves,” Mabry says. “Yes, my name may come up, and it’ll show written and directed by Tina Mabry, but I didn’t do this by myself. You see the list of everybody else who worked on it – this is our project.”
Mabry knows her entire career started by somebody giving her a chance and makes it her life goal to do the same for others.
“When someone tells me you’ve changed my life or made me want to be a filmmaker, that humbles me beyond belief because I never envisioned myself being able to do that for anybody,” she says. “I just looked at two women and saw the names on the end of the films and decided that I would change my life.”

By Annie Rhoades

This story was reprinted with permission from the Ole Miss Alumni Review. The Alumni Review is published quarterly for members of the Ole Miss Alumni Association. Join or renew your membership with the Alumni Association today, and don’t miss a single issue.

For questions, email us at hottytoddynews@gmail.com.

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