- Associated Press - Monday, January 16, 2017

TUPELO, Miss. (AP) - When Tupelo native Tina Mabry decided to go to Hollywood more than 15 years ago, her goal was to tell stories she believed in.

A writer, director and producer, she focused on feature films at the beginning of her career, but, lately, she’s found success on the small screen.

“I got busy, thankfully. I got real busy,” Mabry, 38, said during a phone interview from Los Angeles.

She has worked on projects for USA, Netflix and Amazon. Her move to television got a kick-start from “Queen Sugar,” a series created by Ava DuVernay and Oprah Winfrey. It airs on OWN.

“It’s amazing how one thing just completely catapults and changes the trajectory of your career,” Mabry said. “Thankfully, after ‘Queen Sugar,’ basically, everything has been coming my way.”

The show is a one-hour drama set in the South. It follows the lives of three siblings as they try to run their late father’s sugarcane farm in Louisiana.

“To me, it was something that, ‘OK, I know this world,’” Mabry said. “I know the language. I know the feel. I know the characters. It was basically the feeling that I was writing for people I know. It’s fun, but it’s challenging, too. You’re taking from your own life and what you hear from other people, the friends and family that you have.”

Earlier in her career, she’d mined her own history to write and direct 2009’s “Mississippi Damned.” A fictionalized account of her Tupelo upbringing, the film earned multiple awards on the film festival circuit and showcased her storytelling abilities.

It turned out that television executives appreciated her character-centered approach.

“They started pulling from the world of independent filmmakers, and they were like, ‘Hey, do you guys have any ideas for TV shows?’” Mabry said. “The entire thing about watching a TV show is caring about what you’re watching and wanting to tune in each week to see what happens to the characters, so it’s something that is character driven.”

She wants to entertain audiences, but she also wants to start discussions and create debates. A children’s show for Amazon offered her an unexpected opportunity to explore deep territory.

She didn’t write “An American Girl Story - Melody 1963: Love Has to Win,” but a family tragedy in Tupelo informed her approach as director.

Her cousin, Antwun “Ronnie” Shumpert, was unarmed when he was shot and killed by a Tupelo police officer after a traffic stop and chase in June. Officer Tyler Cook was cleared of criminal wrongdoing, but a civil lawsuit is pending in federal court.

“That’s been a very difficult thing for the family to go through. The aftermath is as awful as the experience itself,” Mabry said. “When it’s your family, it’s a different perspective. It really touches home, really touches home.”

Soon after Shumpert’s death, she was reading the script for “Melody,” which includes elements of racism and police brutality. Set after the Birmingham, Alabama, church bombing that killed four girls, the story follows a 10-year-old African-American girl in a predominantly white school in Detroit.

“It let me pull a lot from myself when I was directing that,” Mabry said, “because I had something to draw from, from losing my cousin. The things happening back then, they’re still happening today.”

“Melody” debuted on Amazon on Sept. 21, and Mabry has heard about kids, parents and grandparents watching it together and then having the kinds of conversations she’d hoped the show would inspire.

“Kids are extremely intelligent,” she said. “Sometimes we don’t give them enough credit for their maturity and what they can digest.”

Discrimination also plays a part in her Netflix project, “Dear White People,” a comedy that will debut in the spring. It’s based on the 2014 movie of the same name written and directed by Justin Simien.

“So Justin gives me a call and says, ‘Hey, are you interested in directing?’” she said. “‘Yeah, but first of all, congratulations, man.’ He’s a really sweet guy and really talented. I’m so happy to see he got this chance.”

For her current project, Mabry is working as a writer and producer on the second season of USA’s “Queen of the South.” It’s about a woman who flees Mexico and must survive one dreadful dilemma after another.

“What games does she have to play? How does she try to escape it?” Mabry said. “You see a lot of human qualities in our main character, Teresa. You see that this poor woman has been thrown into this world. This world can either eat her up, or she can eat it up.”

The next season of “Queen of the South” should be ready for TV screens in the summer. By then, Mabry probably will be wrapped up in other projects.

She’s also executive director of Morgan’s Mark, an independent production company and editing facility in Los Angeles. Her co-workers have been crucial during her recent run of TV work.

“It’s definitely good to be busy, but I want to make sure I’m not just working back to back to back. I still want to make sure I’m taking care of each project that’s coming my way,” she said. “Thankfully, I have a very good team around me. They help keep the other plates spinning.”

With plenty of imagination and help from talented collaborators, Mabry is telling stories that connect with her and - she hopes - with viewers everywhere. She’s living a Hollywood dream come true.

“I’m just having a good time,” she said. “I may be tired, but I’m having a really good time.”

Copyright © 2018 The Washington Times, LLC.

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