We watch a lot of biopics around here at Frock Flicks HQ. It comes with the territory, being historical and all. But I can’t remember the last biographical movie I watched about a Native American woman, other than incredibly fictionalized tales of Pocahontas (always in luuuuuuurve with Captain John Smith). So I was pleasantly surprised to stumble across Te Ata (2016) on Amazon because it’s set in the early 20th century, with decent costumes, and only has a mild (and not fictional) romance subplot.
Mary Frances Thompson (1895-1995) used “Te Ata” as her stage name, and she was a citizen of the Chickasaw Nation who became widely known for performing Native American stories, songs, and poetry to white audiences. She introduced countless schoolchildren to her tribal art and culture, and Te Ata famously performed for Eleanor and Franklin D. Roosevelt several times, as well as for European royalty.
This movie was produced and funded by the Chickasaw Nation, and historic locations such as the Chickasaw Nation Capitol building in Tishomingo and the Chickasaw White House in Milburn, both in Oklahoma, were used. Te Ata begins during Mary’s childhood right as her hometown of Emet becomes subsumed in the new state of Oklahoma. Her uncle was Douglas H. Johnston, governor of the Chickasaw Nation, and the horribly unjust dealings of the U.S. government towards the Native American people are shown through Johnston’s activities, including an unsuccessful trip to Washington D.C.
Mary attends Oklahoma College for Women, where she realizes her talent for performance, and she’s encouraged to tell her own Chickasaw stories by a teacher, Frances Dinsmore Davis. This is where she begins to develop a stage repertoire of Native American song, dance, and art.
A summer performing tour leads to New York City where Te Ata tries to make it as an actress on Broadway.
Most of the story is set in the 1910s right up to 1933, and the costumes, while not elaborate, are overall accurately done and convey the passage of time. I seriously doubt any of the women are corseted in the early decades depicted, but everyone has their hair up! This probably wasn’t the biggest budget of frock flicks, but the costume designer Beverly Safier (whose resume is mostly modern TV) did a good job of giving characters appropriate outfits in historical styles, complete with hats and other accessories.
The adult Mary is played by Q’orianka Kilcher, who starred as another Native American in the title role of Princess Kaiulani (2009). Unlike the earlier film, Te Ata doesn’t fall into romantic cliches or myths. This is a straightforward telling of her early life, showing how she found her passion for storytelling and honed her craft.
Chickasaw historian Jeannie Barbour co-wrote the script with Esther Luttrell. In an interview with The Oklahoman, Barbour explains the importance of Te Ata’s work and why the film focuses on this time period:
“It was during a time when there was that risk that we were going to lose some of these stories and songs because of assimilation policy … so I think that’s one of the very most poignant and maybe courageous things that Te Ata did was that she took these stories and told them during a time when it was discouraged.”
The film seemed to only be shown on the festival circuit when it was first made and received mixed reviews, calling it “sentimental” but also praising the “driving force” of the “mythic performance scenes.” I think I agree most with the Seattle Times review that says:
“Though it often resembles an innocuous Hallmark movie, the biographical drama “Te Ata” proves an illuminating, sometimes moving intersection of history, family conflict and the sort of rising, individual destiny that can nudge a nation along in its progress.”
Considering we’ve had decades of sentimental biopics about white men, that this one movie about a Native American woman gets a little mushy in the telling doesn’t diminish it to me. I was engaged for the whole 105 minutes, and I learned about someone in a time and place that I knew nothing about. The story is told entirely from Mary’s point of view, showing how she has agency in her life and uses her talents to help improve the world’s understanding of her people.
Check out Te Ata on Amazon and see for yourself!