Q’orianka Kilcher stars as the acclaimed Chickasaw storyteller Te Ata in the biopic “Te Ata.” Photo provided by Chickasaw Nation Productions
A version of this review appears in Friday’s Weekend Life section of The Oklahoman. 3 of 4 stars.
Movie review: ‘Te Ata’ lovingly tells the story of famed American Indian storyteller
An official Oklahoma Treasure gets a lovingly polished gem of a feature film with “Te Ata.”
Produced by the Chickasaw Nation, the family-friendly biopic recounts the childhood, early career and rise to international prominence of the legendary Chickasaw storyteller who took her people’s stories from her small community in Indian Territory all the way to Franklin Roosevelt’s White House.
Directed by Nathan Frankowski (“To Write Love on Her Arms,” “Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed”), from a script by Esther Luttrell (Chickasaw author and historian Jeannie Barbour co-wrote the story), “Te Ata” follows familiar conventions of cinematic biographies a bit too closely. But the nicely detailed period film doesn’t just chronicle an Oklahoma Hall of Famer’s achievements, it also puts them in context of the racism American Indians continued to face in the early 20th century.
Q’orianka Kilcher (Terrence Malick’s “The New World”) brings warmth and vitality to her portrayal of Te Ata, who was born Mary Frances Thompson to a prominent Chickasaw family: Her uncle Douglas H. Johnston (Oscar nominee Graham Greene, “Dances with Wolves”), served as the last governor of the pre-statehood Chickasaw Nation, and her father T.B. Thompson (Gil Birmingham, the “Twilight Saga” movies), as its last treasurer. Mary Frances’ father enchants her with the traditional stories of their people even as the federal Code of Indian Offenses prohibits American Indians from practicing their culture.
Over her protective father’s objections, Mary Frances goes off to Chickasha’s Oklahoma College for Women, where she is the only Native and an outsider. But she finds a mentor in drama teacher Miss Davis (Sand Springs native Cindy Pickett, “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off”), who urges her to incorporate her American Indian heritage into her performances, which are grippingly depicted.
Adopting the stage name Te Ata, meaning “bearer of the morning,” her talent for telling Native stories takes her on a national Chautauqua tour, to the Carnegie Institute in Pittsburgh and to the New York City theater and social scenes, where she meets future first lady Eleanor Roosevelt (Gail Cronauer, “The Newton Boys”) and her future husband, scholar and astronomer Clyde Fisher (Mackenzie Astin, “The Facts of Life,” who shares a lovely chemistry with Kilcher).
Even as the U.S. government seeks to snuff out American Indian ways, she embraces her destiny as a speaker for Native peoples, entrusted to tell the stories of the Chickasaws and other tribes to anyone who is willing to listen and learn.
Lensed entirely in Oklahoma, the inspirational film boasts a golden-hued beauty, showcasing not only one of Oklahoma’s most prominent historical figures but also the state itself.
Even if the biopic’s creators play it a bit too safe with their storytelling approach, “Te Ata” serves as a fitting tribute to a trailblazing woman who embodied the power of sharing stories.
“Te Ata” opens in theaters around Oklahoma Friday. To find a theater showing it, go to teatamovie.com.