On Jan. 16, 2009, the movie that eventually would be titled "Precious: Based on the Novel 'Push' by Sapphire" premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in Park City Utah.
That same day, at a less prestigious screening room in the same town, a thematically similar but much less touted movie about economic hardship, family crisis, sexual identity and African- American empowerment made its debut at the rival Slamdance Film Festival.
Unlike "Precious," this second movie, titled "Mississippi Damned," would not attract the sponsorship of Oprah Winfrey or Tyler Perry. It would not earn six Academy Award nominations, and it certainly wouldn't collect $63 million at the worldwide box office. In fact, it wouldn't even get a theatrical release.
But "Mississippi Damned" -- now available on DVD -- is a rural Southern underdog with not just bite but staying power. It's more tough than precious, and it introduces Tupelo-born, African-American writer-director Tina Mabry as a distinctive and talented storyteller.
Said Mabry: "I'm dedicated to telling Southern stories about Southern characters -- an insider's view of how
we live, because I think it usually gets portrayed incorrectly. When I see most movies about the South, I say, 'We're not like that.'"
"Mississippi Damned" screened in Memphis on Oct. 24 as part of the ongoing "Southern Circuit Tour of Independent Filmmakers" at the Buckman Performing and Fine Arts Center at St. Mary's Episcopal School, 60 Perkins Ext. The "Tour" continues at 6 p.m. Feb. 6 at the Buckman with director Alex Karpovsky's "Woodpecker," a comic semidocumentary about the supposed rediscovery of the ivory-billed woodpecker.
At the October screening, Mabry was joined by some of her Tupelo relatives, even though the semiautobiographical "Mississippi Damned" portrays a family in an extreme state of dysfunction, with problems ranging from unemployment to sexual abuse, drug addiction and even murder. The sometimes grotesque extremism of this "Precious"-esque litany of disaster is balanced by the film's pictorial confidence and its utterly convincing sense of place.
"I had a lot of debate with myself as to what to put in there, and whether to admit it was based on my life and my family," said Mabry, 32, who now lives in Los Angeles, where she operates her Morgan's Mark independent production company with father-and-daughter producing partners Lee and Morgan Stiff.
"For a long time, I harbored a lot of shame about where I came from and what I went through. At test screenings, people were saying, 'All this can't happen to one family,' and I was sitting there saying, 'Yeah, it can.'"
Mabry said "Mississippi Damned" has been therapeutic for audiences as well as for herself. "The one thing I started finding out as we took the film out on the festival circuit was that I wasn't alone in my experiences. People started standing up in the Q-and-A's and expressing some really deep, dark secrets. The events portrayed in the film are a lot more prevalent than I realized."
Set in the Magnolia State but filmed in and around tiny Ahoskie, N.C., "Mississippi Damned" is an extremely ambitious low-budget debut feature. Shot on 35-millimeter, the movie has 34 speaking parts (most of the actors are experienced professionals) and about 20 locations. It's not just a period piece but a two-period piece: It opens in 1986, then later shifts to 1998.
Shooting began in May of 2008, but the 22-day schedule became 211/2 days when a violent storm struck the set.
"On day one, we had a tornado, and a tree landed on the house behind the house we were shooting at," Mabry said. "Thankfully, we were fine, but I was like, 'Okay, we survived day one -- I think we got this.'"
The central character and the story's stand-in for Mabry is Kari, portrayed as a kid by Kylee Russell and as an adult by Tessa Thompson (a regular on "Veronica Mars" who recently made an impression in Tyler Perry's "For Colored Girls").
Kari is a smart, sensitive girl and budding artist (a pianist) in a blunt, impoverished, sometimes violent world of "whoremongers" and "crackheads." As in "Precious," "The Color Purple" and "For Colored Girls," men provide little comfort or support for the story's hard-working, downtrodden women, one of whom comments: "Those no-good men gonna have us all in the poor house or the crazy house, one."
Born and raised in Tupelo, Mabry left home to attend Ole Miss. She planned on being a lawyer, but her senior year she watched Kimberly Peirce's "Boys Don't Cry" and Gina Prince-Bythewood's "Love & Basketball" -- "two very different movies that moved me in different ways, and they both were made by women." Figuring "if I'm going to go into debt, I might as well go into debt doing something I love," Mabry began investigating film schools, and was accepted at George Lucas' alma mater, the University of Southern California's School of Cinematic Arts, where Morgan Stiff was a classmate. She graduated in 2005, with a Master of Fine Arts degree in film production.
Mabry said she's aware that some critics and moviegoers aren't fans of films like "Mississippi Damned" that depict in detail the ugly side of black American life -- an emphasis that has been derided as "Negro miserabilism." But she said to sugarcoat the details would have been to deny the hard reality of her own experiences.
"The problem is not necessarily the material but what is showcased in the mainstream media," she said. "Because African-American characters are not showcased enough, they're somehow supposed to represent all of us, so we often want to see them in the best light. But I don't feel like I can represent my entire race; I just want to tell the story I want to tell."
Mabry said her next movie will be "County Line," a crime drama about a corrupt small-town sheriff whose son becomes addicted to the very drugs the lawman has allowed to infiltrate his jurisdiction.
"Mississippi Damned" is available on DVD through the film's Web site, MississippiDamned.com.