Overcoming racial prejudice to become a popular storyteller, Native American performer Te Ata Fisher — who died in 1995 at age 99 — led an inspirational life. How ironic, then, that the biopic “Te Ata,” while meaning well, fails to bring her triumphant story to life.
Produced by the Chickasaw Nation and filmed in Oklahoma, where Te Ata grew up, in Indian Territory, the film begins with Te Ata’s father (Gil Birmingham) telling his young daughter, then known as Mary Frances Thompson, a tale about horses of many colors. They may be brown, black or yellow, he says, “but they are all one horse.”
The metaphor, of course, also applies to humans. But as we see in the film, all are not equal. Gov. Douglas H. Johnston (Graham Greene), the first governor of the Chickasaw Nation appointed by a U.S. president, struggles to get Washington bureaucrats to release funds it had obtained from tribal resources. Worse, the Code of Indian Offenses, with the aim of Christianization, forbids Native Americans from performing their ceremonial dances and rituals.
After enrolling at a girls’ boarding school, Te Ata (Q’orianka Kilcher) practices a Shakespeare monologue, which comes off as bombastic and forced. When her teacher (Cindy Pickett) asks, “What stories do you have to tell?” Te Ata turns to Chickasaw myth, finding her true voice.
At least, that’s the idea.
Te Ata (a Maori phrase meaning “bearer of the dawn”) would go on to perform on Broadway and at the White House. But her style of performance — as rendered by Kilcher with broad gestures and melodramatic tone — comes across as stilted and corny on film.
What’s more, the stories themselves are given short shrift. After a show, Seminole women approach Te Ata, who explains that “they share their stories with me so that I can share them with the whole world.” But we never hear those stories.
Scenes focusing on Te Ata’s relationship with astronomer Clyde Fisher (Mackenzie Astin), whom she would eventually marry, allow the film to stray even further from the theme of personal voice. A courtship montage, scored with jazz, briefly turns “Te Ata” into a Woody Allen movie.
Director Nathan Frankowski got his start in documentary, but “Te Ata” feels less fact-based than something on the Hallmark Channel. In a montage of photos of the real Te Ata, the closing credits convey more drama than the film itself. Simultaneously earnest yet maudlin, “Te Ata” lacks the one thing its subject is said to have possessed: a gift for storytelling.
PG. At AMC’s Hoffman Center 22 and the AMC Loews Rio Cinemas 18. Contains brief violence. 105 minutes.