‘Dear White People’ Director Tina Mabry Talks Diversity and TV vs. Film

Even if she wanted to complain, director Tina Mabry is too grateful for every gig she’s landed to whisper one word of discontent. Mabry, 39, earned her first DGA Award for Amazon’s TV movie “An American Girl Story – Melody 1963: Love Has to Win” earlier this year. The Tupelo, Miss., native has also helmed episodes of Netflix’s critically acclaimed “Dear White People,” “Queen Sugar” on OWN, HBO’s “Insecure” and “Queen of the South” on USA.

With so much going on, when have you had time to stop and catch your breath?
Even though it’s tiring — and who isn’t tired in this line of work? — these are opportunities I’ve wanted to have since I moved to Los Angeles 15 years ago. I haven’t had a lot of luck getting my next feature film made, but I’m working steadily in TV and I’m really appreciative and humbled.

Did “Dear White People” hit home?
I directed episode three, about Troy, and four, about Coco, and that was surreal. I’m a fan of Justin Simien and the movie. But the show is deeper because you get the backstory on these characters and how complicated they are. I could relate given my own backstory. I got my undergrad degree at the University of Mississippi. This is a place where the Klan showed up because we wanted to take away the Confederate flag at football games. That’s not something I should’ve experienced in my lifetime, but I did. Then I attended USC film school for my master’s and that was a different kind of culture shock. In the South, everyone says “hi,” but that’s not how all black people are in Los Angeles.

What’s it like working on “Insecure”?
All of us remember when we started and weren’t making any money. But look where we are now. Just being able to acknowledge and experience that joy is a dream come true. I’ve been watching Issa [Rae] since “Awkward Black Girl” and to see her finally get her own show and then for me to direct an episode is really an honor. I wish there were more than eight episodes each season.

How important is it as a woman director to work with a predominately female crew?
With “Queen Sugar” and “Insecure,” having so many women in positions of power makes each black woman-centric narrative feel authentic. That’s not something you see everyday in front of or behind the camera. On “Insecure,” the director of photography is a woman, my first assistant director is a woman, and we’re openly gay women. Everyone is represented and this is the way the world looks. I was looking for true inspiration and I found it.

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