Q’orianka Kilcher in Te Ata (The Chickasaw Nation/Paladin)

We are in an age of where more films are steadily giving those who have historically been marginalized a platform to vocalize their stories. The second feature film made by Chickasaw Nation Productions, Te Ata is a heartwarming and handsomely filmed biopic of a woman who challenged stereotypes.

Mary Frances Thompson was a Native American woman born in 1895 who dismantled the boundaries imposed upon her by white society. She embodied her Chickasaw culture and expressed herself through theatre, performing under the name Te Ata, which translates to “bearer of the morning.” She told her stories with an honesty that paved the way for people of color to freely express their personal narratives.

The film begins with an adolescent Thompson narrating a traditional Chickasaw tale as she ventures throughout the forest. The film is scattered with pivotal biographical moments, the first being the murder of a tribal elder by a white farmer. This signifies her transition from girlhood to womanhood. She falls in love with theatre as she performs Shakespeare for her family, before becoming the first Native student accepted to the Oklahoma College for Women. She goes on to study acting at Carnegie Institute of Technology (after first being rejected), where she begins to find her voice as a performer.

Her tireless efforts to land a role on Broadway finally comes to an end when she is cast in her first play, a hit. All the while she continues to give private performances for the elite, in which she draws on her Chickasaw culture to tell traditional narratives. The film follows a rather hopeful, upbeat progression, with brief moments of conflict focusing on family disputes. However troublesome Te Ata is for her loved ones, her ambition to promote her culture to the white world prevails.

Q’orianka Kilcher, known for her role as Pocahontas in Terrence Malick’s film The New World, breaks new ground in her radiant performance as Te Ata. When Te Ata performs her stories, Kilcher brings to life a theatrical presence. The way in which her body flows to the rhythm of her narrative allows the audience to feel as if they are sitting in the room, immersed in the atmosphere she creates.

The casting choices give Te Ata a rare authenticity, with performances by Graham Green (as Governor Douglas H. Johnston) and Gil Birmingham (Thomas Benjamin Thompson, as her father). The performances given by all emphasize a sense of community as a means of narrative expression. This concept is clear in the role of Miss Davis (Cindy Pickett), the white teacher who gave Mary Frances the confidence to follow her dreams. This is a very typical cinematic trope, but with this one character, the young student is introduced to possibilities, and in turn emerges as an activist.

Writers Jeannie Barbour and Esther Luttrell evoke a sense of admiration from their audience in a script that has more depth than most biopics. We are reminded that passion is the key to self-expression. As a result, Te Ata is an inspiring tale about an inspiring woman.

Directed by Nathan Frankowski
Written by Esther Luttrell and Jeannie Barbour
Released by the Chickasaw Nation/Paladin
USA. 105 min. Not rated
With Q’orianka Kilcher, Graham Greene, Gil Birmingham, Mackenzie Astin, Cindy Pickett, and Brigid Brannagh