Overview: Defying cultural and sexual stereotypes, young Chickasaw actress Mary Thompson Fisher, under the stage name Te-Ata, takes America by storm with gripping, dramatic retellings of her people’s folklore. c. Paladin; 2016; Not Yet Rated; 105 minutes.
Third World Cinema in the First World?: Nathan Frankowski’s Te Ata is exactly the kind of film that critics, historians, and social justice advocates have been clamoring for. It is a Chickasaw story about a Chickasaw hero starring Native American performers. It addresses the tragic realities of their persecuted histories without being defined by them, preferring instead to focus on what is beautiful, true, and uplifting in their cultures. Its message is equally feminist, anti-racist, and inspirational. And perhaps most significantly, it was financed by Chickasaw Nation Productions, a production company specializing in film media exploring and promoting the Chickasaw. If two of the greatest hurdles independent filmmakers face today is securing funding and distribution in an economy increasingly dominated by monolithic online streaming services, then the success of Chickasaw Nation Productions is one of a marginalized people overcoming a rigged system to tell their own stories on their own terms.
The Dawning of the Bearer of the Morning: In the early 1900s when she was a child, Te-Ata’s father told her stories about spirits and wonders, of the beginning of time and the unity of all things. He told her of the crayfish who swam to the bottom of the ocean and built a chimney to the surface from which the first men and women emerged. He told her of the old times when the Chickasaw searched for a homeland, how they would plant a pole in the middle of the night and travel in whichever way it pointed in the morning. But he also told her stories about the coming of the White Man, how they forced them from their long-sought homeland along an endless Trail of Tears to a new one on a reservation. And in the nighttime stillness little Mary Thompson Fisher heard her parents whispering other stories, ones not meant for young girls. Stories about how the US government still treated them like savages, how White Men could kill their people with impunity, how new laws forbade them from singing the old songs and dancing the old dances. And yet this suffering couldn’t diminish the light burning within Mary, a light that would guide her to defy the racist and sexist standards of the times,attending the Oklahoma College for Women before traveling to New York City to perform on Broadway. This light led her to reinvent herself as a teller of stories, sharing her culture with an audience accustomed to seeing Native Americans as “savages. This light guided her to stages across the globe to perform before mass audiences, kings, and presidents. It was this light that gave her a new name: Te Ata, which means “bearer of the morning.”
It’s a remarkable story, and one worthy of being told. Unfortunately, where Te-Ata succeeds as a collective, artistic achievement it misses the mark as a fully realized work of art.
Who is at Fault? The Artist or the Audience?: With such inspiring source material, it’s always a difficult line for a film to walk between telling a reverential story and falling victim to saccharine tropes. There isn’t a moment of the film that doesn’t feel forced, and it suffers for its lack of subtlety. Plot points land with the flat weight of a commercial break cliffhanger of a Saturday morning cartoon. Consider one scene where Te Ata’s uncle, Douglas H. Johnston (Graham Greene), governor of the Chickasaw Nation, goes to Washington to ask several politicians to release government funds so they can build a school. The entire thing is filmed like it takes place in the lair of 60s Bond villain. And the acting isn’t less subtle: the comically evil politicians steeple their hands under their chins as they sneer about “tribal dances” and guffaw cheap platitudes about the “savages” pulling themselves up by their bootstraps. At any moment you’d expect GI Joe to burst through the wall.
And most frustrating is the central performance by Q’orianka Kilcher as the adult Te Ata. What is she doing here? Is this the same actress who wowed audiences as Pocahontas in Terrence Malick’s The New World (2005) and the titular Hawaiian ruler in Marc Forby’s Princess Kaiulani (2009)? There isn’t a single line she doesn’t overact nor a single facial moment she doesn’t oversell. When I was in kindergarten my teacher would read us books by Roald Dahl and Louis Sachar, all the while inventing silly voices and mannerisms for all the characters: puff-cheeked bass chuffing for the stuffy adults and song-like chirping for the kindly teachers. This is the caliber of acting Kilcher channels in this baffling performance.
Overall: Te-Ata is not a good film, but it comes from a good place. I want to see a world where own voices filmmaking flourishes and inspires marginalized people everywhere to tell their own stories. It’s time we all further the international dialogue of cinema by actively seeking and promoting new, marginalized voices. I want all of my preconceptions about what the cinema can be and what it can do challenged. I want to hear newstories and meet new actors.. I want them to welcome them, not out of charity, but because their stories are as compelling as any other, even when the films that tell them unfortunately fail. Whatever comes next from Chickasaw Nation Productions, I hope to be there to see it.