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  • Writer's pictureLa'Chris Jordan

Writer/Director Tina Mabry Talks About Truth, Challenging Audiences and Why She Ditched Law School

Photo credit: Ashly Covington

For Tina Mabry, pursuing a law degree seemed like the practical thing to do - especially for a young, black woman from a small town with limited job opportunities. And Mabry knew she wanted more. So, she hit the books. And hard. She studied day and night for the LSAT while considering different law programs, but it didn’t take long for Mabry to realize that law school wasn’t hers for the taking.

“I was miserable,” Mabry said.

Mabry needed something else, and that something else was storytelling. Stories were always her inspiration, particularly movies from female directors like "Boys Don’t Cry" (Kimberly Peirce) and "Love & Basketball" (Gina Prince-Bythewood.)

“I had things to say and writing seemed like the best way to channel what I saw,” said Mabry, who still has vivid memories of crafting her novel on a typewriter her dad bought for her when she was only 12-years-old. “It was almost like journaling in a way.”

For Mabry, the goal was clear: pursue a career in film.

"I had things to say and writing seemed like the best way to channel what I saw."

But no one was making movies in Mississippi, and there certainly weren’t any film schools there at the time. So, with nothing more than $1,200 to her name, a packed U-haul, and a healthy dose of moxie, Mabry left Tupelo, Mississippi for the bright lights of Los Angeles, California.

When Mabry arrived in L.A., she rented a small studio apartment in Koreatown while working as an unpaid intern, but rent was a whopping $900 a month. To say things were tough would be an understatement.

“You go to this new city where you have no family, and you are trying to make it,” said Mabry. “But you know you can’t stay behind. You gotta do what you gotta do. When you move to a new city, you have to find your tribe.”

Photo credit: Timothy Norris

Mabry applied to a handful of film schools and was rejected by all of them – letters that she still has to this day. “I kept them because it’s the one ‘yes’ that counts,” she said.

The one ‘yes’ was from USC’s School of Cinematic Arts graduate film program, and it couldn’t have come at a better time.

Now, fifteen years later, the multi-award winning writer/director couldn’t be happier. Everyday, she gets to do what she loves. Currently, Mabry is gearing up for one of the biggest projects of her career – working as a producer, writer, and director on Oprah Winfrey and Ava DuVernay’s dramatic series “Queen Sugar.”

Based on the novel of the same name by Natalie Baszile, "Queen Sugar" is set to premiere this fall on OWN. “Queen Sugar" follows the life of two sisters, Nova Bordelon (playing by Rutina Wesley), the formidable journalist and activist from New Orleans, and Charley Bordelon (Dawn-Lyen Gardner), who, with her teenage son Micah, leaves her upscale apartment in Los Angeles and moves to the heart of Louisiana to claim an 800-acre sugar cane farm.

“Our goal is to make sure we come up with the strongest series,” Mabry said of the show. "What’s exciting about this project is that we have an opportunity to showcase talent that has been ignored. It’s also one of the most diverse writing rooms I have ever been in. There are people from Chicago, Ohio, New Jersey, Mississippi, Nigeria…it’s a room that truly reflects a microcosm of the world. It’s inclusive. Everybody’s coming from where they are.”

And audiences have much to look forward to with “Queen Sugar,” especially with Mabry being one of the producers at the helm. She’s no stranger to getting class-A actors to give it their all.

Her full-length autobiographical feature “Mississippi Damned” earned an impressive thirteen awards from fifteen film festivals including Outstanding Independent Feature at the 2010 Black Reel Awards, Best Feature Film and Best Screenplay at the Chicago International Film Festival in 2009, and Best International Feature Film at the Zurich Film Festival that same year.

“Mississippi Damned” centers on three African-America sisters growing up in rural Mississippi who struggle to overcome their complex family issues involving poverty, addiction, and abuse. The film premiered on Showtime in February 2011 and is currently streaming on Netflix.

Like “Mississippi Damned,” Mabry’s success is driven by truth in storytelling.

“Art is supposed to make you question,” Mabry said. “That’s the goal of the it. I can’t fake it. This creates debate and conversation. This is where we’ve always been headed as filmmakers. As an artist I ask, ‘What is most important to me? What do I want to say about things?’ It is very important to tell the stories that nobody wants to tell. I’m also speaking for the people who don’t have the outlet to do it. I feel like it is an obligation to speak for people who are disenfranchised. And how do we fix it without being didactic? By having characters who audiences can fall in love with.”

To learn more about Mabry's work, visit

*This article originally published on


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