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A Conversation with…Tina Mabry, director of “Mississippi Damned”

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When openly gay director Tina Mabry watched her film Mississippi Damned for first time, she knew she had created something special. “I am my own worst critic, she admits. “But  this is the first time I was  able to sit down and  not to nitpick at everything.”

Mississippi  Damned, which is based on events from Mabry’s own life growing up in rural Mississippi, focuses on a southern family from the years 1986 through 1998. The film follows the lives of three young African Americans finding their way in the world as they suffer from suffocating cycles of abuse, molestation, addiction and poverty. Leigh, an out lesbian teen,  has an unhealthy and long obsession with her ex-girlfriend.  Sammy, a basketball star deals with an alcoholic mother and  being sexually abused by a family friend. And Kari, the gifted pianist, has aspirations to attend New York University to study music, but finds it is almost impossible to escape her circumstances.

Since the film’s debut at Slamdance last year, Mabry’s tale of family, pain and secrets has awed audiences on the film festival circuit. With impressive wins at the Chicago International Film Festival, Outfest, Urbanworld Film Festival and the Philadelphia Film Festival to name a few, Mississippi Damned could easily find itself a serious Oscar contender in 2011.

Mabry sat down with GLAAD’s Kellee Terrell to talk about her directorial debut, being an out lesbian and the future of black LGBT characters on the small and large screens.

GLAAD:  This film is based on your childhood and family’s experiences. Were they upset that you were “airing their dirty laundry?"

Tina Mabry: Surprisingly no.  I showed it to them over Christmas of 2008. For whatever reason, I thought that would be a good time to do it. [laughing] Even though they knew I was making a movie about them, I was still nervous about their reaction because actually seeing it makes all the difference.

But It went really well, they really liked it. We had a lot of laughs and a lot of tears.

You know, I didn’t make this film to judge and I don’t want anyone to walk away judging this family. I hope they leave the theater knowing that these people really loved each other, despite their flaws.  No one is perfect.

Sexual abuse is a main theme in Mississippi Damned. It’s  a very taboo and hushed subject, especially among the African-American community. What has the reaction been to your film?

During the question and answer portion of the screenings,  people have been standing up, thanking me and sharing their own personal stories. One woman just cried for ten minutes and talked about how she was molested. Another woman told us that after seeing the film, she was finally ready to talk to her mother about some of their issues, some 20 years after the fact. The response has been amazing.

People have been silent for way too long. It’s the shame that keeps people quiet. You don’t want anyone one to judge you and you blame yourself. I suppressed so many of those memories and I finally told myself I couldn’t suppress it anymore.

We need to start putting our family business in the streets. [laughing].  This film for me was a way to be really honest about my life.

I was really moved by the portrayal of Leigh. The way that her isolation and sadness was depicted was powerful. What was it like for you and your sister to be lesbians growing up in the South?

Well, my sister and I had very different experiences.  She is 10 years older than me and came out to my parents first, so it was harder for her. She felt isolated and still does now.  I had an easier time, perhaps because I was not out in Mississippi―I waited until I moved to Los Angeles and attended film school at USC.

I always knew that I was gay, but I did not feel that Mississippi was the right environment for me to be out. I saw how my sister got treated by my parents and other people. I didn’t  want to upset my parents and I didn’t want to go through the same thing as my sister.  Back then, no one was out, even people you knew were gay, they weren’t out.  So I chose to say nothing.

Do you regret not coming out sooner?

I was cowardly― I should have been more honest,  but there was no community. The character Leigh represents what it was like to be gay where I lived.

When I finally told my mother, she cried. She said, “I can’t believe it, you are so pretty. I thought you liked men.” My father knows that I am gay, but I have never told him face-to-face. I let my mother relay that message to him. (laughing) My mother passed away and for so long we talked through her to talk to each other. But he has really come along. He loves Morgan and tells her that. So those are things my sister didn’t get a chance to have when she first came out.

When it comes to the black gay films and characters, what would you like to see change?

We need more visibility and more range when looking at our lives. It really angers me that we don’t have that range and that there is not much more to us on the screen that comedy. I will say that there are black LGBT films or films that have gay content in them, but we have to struggle to find those films, but they are out there. It’s up to us to support those films once we find them.

When will the film be released in the theaters?                                                               

We are working on getting distribution now. I hope that sometime this year it will happen. There was talk of it going to television or DVD, but with all the feedback and good reviews we have gotten, I would really like to get the movie into the theaters.

Watch the Mississippi Damned trailer:

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bA5f47ihycs]

Watch a GLAAD interview with Mabry and her partner Morgan Stiff (producer of the film) at the Sundance Film Festival in 2009.

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nceHIWFJuKQ]