In The Mix

You Go, Girl

Women step into key roles on Amazon Studios’ American Girl movies.

Amy Amatangelo
  • Amazon Studios
  • Tara Sorenson

    John P. Fleenor
  • Alison McDonald

    Mitchell Haddad
  • Tina Mabry

    Ashly Covington

When Amazon Studios decided to produce four movies based on American Girl characters, Tara Sorensen, head of kids’ programming for the streaming service, was determined to hire women behind the camera.

“The American Girl brand is about building strong bonds with girls and creating communities so they have one another to lean on,” Sorensen says. “We looked to bring on writers and talent who are reflective of the girls we were highlighting. We’re trying to give girls an advantage. And if I didn’t do that on the production side, it would have felt disingenuous.”

For the first project, An American Girl Story — Melody 1963: Love Has to Win, which premiered last fall, Sorensen tapped Alison McDonald (Roots) to write the script and Tina Mabry (Queen Sugar) to direct the tale of 10-year-old Melody Ellison (Marsai Martin of black-ish), who becomes aware of racism around her after the infamous 1963 Birmingham church bombing that  killed four African-American girls.

“With everything going on in the world,” Sorensen says, “part of me wanted to react to it with great content, which could be a tool for  family discussions around what was going on historically and, sadly, what is going on now.”

For her part, McDonald was thrilled to tell a story that some might view as too heavy for children’s “When I gave Tara my vision for the story, she didn’t hesitate,” she says. “It speaks to her desire to raise the bar for kids’ entertainment.” Mabry adds that, thanks to Sorensen, she’s found a home at Amazon Studios. “All we needed was someone to open the door,” she says. “I  hope more executives follow Tara’s model, because it is successful.”

McDonald’s credits include directing four  shorts. But despite her résumé and film-school education, she had trouble gaining traction as a director. After her experience on Melody, Sorensen gave her the opportunity to direct (as well as write) the fourth movie in the franchise, An American Girl Story: Summer Camp, Friends for Life, which premiered June 9.

“She had great insight into Melody when we were on set with her,” Sorenson says. “We believed in her and took a chance.”

Directing Summer Camp, Friends for Life is much more than a career break for McDonald — it’s a chance to inspire others. “My lead characters are three girls — ages 10, 11 and 12 — and they saw a woman in charge. One of their first experiences with a director is that directors can be female, of color and they can wear dresses.”

This article originally appeared in emmy magazine, Issue No. 6, 2017