One of the blessings of Netflix is that movies that get lost in the shuffle have a second chance to find a wide audience on the streaming service, a much better chance that ad hoc sales to cable or broadcast TV ever afforded.
Some are critically-acclaimed “gems,” some critically-dismissed, like “Te Ata,” a plucky, upbeat and corny biography of a famous Chickasaw Nation storyteller. Like “The Chickasaw Rancher,” it was produced by Oklahoma’s Chickasaw Nation, and like that film, it was sold in a package to Netflix and made available for streaming this fall. And like that film, it’s worth a look.
It certainly deserved better than the outright dismissal some critics hurled its way.
It’s an indie period piece about real history, with decent production values and a pretty good cast headed by Q’orianka Kilcher (“A New World”), Gil Birmingham and Graham Greene (co-stars of “Wind River”). If the direction is low key and the screenplay lacks much in the way of edge, at least it tells a mostly-forgotten story about an inspiring figure, and hits a lot of the right buttons.
Kilcher has the title role, that of a daughter of the tribe’s treasurer (Birmingham) with the pluck to go off to an Oklahoma women’s college, “the first Indian we’ve ever had here,” and the dream of reaching Broadway as an actress.
Mary Frances Thompson, as she was born, grew up in the early 20th century, with Oklahoma becoming a state, the Chickasaw losing much of their autonomy and an “Assimilate or Die” edict from Washington delivered directly to the tribal governor (Greene). Officials there wants to ban native traditions and practices, “pagan dances” and “tribal mumbo jumbo,” and even Native crafts.
Mary Frances started to change that by performing tribal legends and myths as a spell-binding storyteller, first in shadow plays at school and then — in Chickasaw garb — for a traveling Chautauqua Show run by an impresario (Tom Nowicki of “The Blind Side”) and fan who desperately wants a costumed “Indian act.”
The storyteller goes to acting school at Carnegie, despite being rejected for admission at first. She moves to New York to try her hand at Broadway. But meeting a smitten scientist (Mackenzie Astin) has a hand in pointing her to her first, best destiny — bringing her culture and tales from it to the masses.
Her fame grows just as the country is hit by the Great Depression (not mentioned here) and changes direction, economically, culturally and socially under Franklin Roosevelt’s administration.
Kilcher, portraying a woman who took on a stage name from her childhood, “Te Ata” (“bearer of the morning”), makes a mesmerizing and old school “theatrical” storyteller. As she and Te Ata’s evolution into a thrilling one-woman-show performer are the best things about “Te Ata,” perhaps that how-she-became-so-polished journey should have take up more of the film.
We get mere glimpses of the racism and violence faced by the Chickasaw at home, and the ugly stereotyping of Native Americans in general that only began to unravel in the 1960s. When your scientist beau takes you to the movies circa 1932, even the cartoons can be “triggering.”
Esther Luttrell’s script is almost of the “faith-based film” persuasion. It “makes nice” and rubs too many of the rough edges off to give us the unvarnished truth.
Director Frankowski, who also did “Chickasaw Rancher” and the little seen but worthwhile indie “To Write Love on Her Arms,” gets good use Kilcher and his players, even if the wigs they’re sometimes saddled with look like community theater cast-offs.
Aside from that, the sense of place is firmed-up with good locations, a period-correct train and train station footage and convincing recreations of the Oklahoma, Philadelphia and New York of the day (all filmed in Oklahoma).
Like “Chickasaw Rancher,” “Te Ata” has an educational agenda, reminding the rest of the country of some history that might figure prominently in Oklahoma curricula, but is little known elsewhere. As with that film, adding it to Netflix proves it can hold its own outside of the classroom.
With every two-bit slasher and spatter thriller finding its way into theaters and onto streaming, it’s encouraging that something with heart, ambition and substance earns the same access. “Te Ata” may not be an Oscar contender, but it is well-acted, touching and certainly good enough to deserve this Netflix curtain call.
Rating: PG for some thematic elements including a brief violent image
Cast: Q’orianka Kilcher, Gil Birmingham, Brigid Brannagh, Mackenzie Astin, Tom Nowicki and Graham Greene
Credits: Directed by Nathan Frankowski, scripted by Esther Luttrell. A Chickasaw Nation production, a Netflix release.
Running time: 1:45