Film Review: Te Ata

An important Native American figure has her story told in this handsomely produced but rather wan vision of her life.
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Te Ata was the stage name of Mary Thompson Fisher, the Chickasaw Native American who brought her culture all over the United States and Europe, performing for presidents, kings and queens. Nathan Frankowski’s reverent film begins with the young Mary being given a proper upbringing by her father (Gil Birmingham) and white mother (Brigid Brannagh) near Emet, Oklahoma at the turn of the 20th century. She spends much of her childhood communing with nature, with some soul-shattering reminders of racism, as her people struggle to find a place of dignity and acceptance at the table of their own native land.

Mary (now played by Q’orianka Kilcher) yearns to see the world beyond her reservation, which unnerves Papa, but her desire is encouraged by the eminent Douglas Johnston (Graham Greene), their tribal governor who realizes that, with her gift of communication, she can educate outsiders about the Chickasaw. She goes to Oklahoma College and becomes the first Native American to earn a degree there. Although faced with small-minded racism from some of her classmates, she is championed by her drama teacher Miss David (Cindy Pickett), who encourages her.

Her father gives her the name Te Ata, a Maori term meaning “bearer of the morning,” and she tours the country, telling tribal stories and singing and dancing. Her goal is to be in a Broadway show, and she moves to New York. Many rejections face her, but she is cast eventually, before realizing that her true calling is to be her people’s spokesperson after all. She finds support and a kindred spirit in a courtly astronomer, Dr. Clyde Fisher (Mackenzie Astin), whom she marries. Her later years were filled with acclaim and countless honors for her tireless cultural work, before she died at nearly 100.

Te Ata, with this amazing story of a too-little-known figure, is definitely worthwhile, if somewhat unexciting, in a picturesque Hallmark-card kind of way. The early part of the last century is scrupulously recreated, but it all seems more like a fetching tableau than a real-life setting. Having becostumed characters spouting jarringly modern expressions like “Whatever” does not help. The pacing is a tad slow, with the director favoring many a mystical shot of the ofi tohbi, the legendary large white dog that guides the Chickasaw people and is a symbol of enduring strength and loyalty.

Frankowski, luckily, has been very fortunate with his cast. The naturally ingratiating Kilcher is no match beauty-wise for the real Te Ata, who was an absolute stunner, but her strong, handsome face draws the camera to her like great sculpture and she exhibits a poise and even an unstressed but authentic regality here. Brannagh as her careworn but feisty mother is very good, as is Birmingham, who shares a magisterial handsomeness with the always marvelous Greene.

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