Last month, actor Adam Beach wrote an important guest column about what Native Americans have gone through in this country over the past 200 years and the historical trauma of having your culture stripped away as tribes were forced to assimilate. That is one of the themes of Te Ata, the second fully-financed film from the Chickasaw Nation which was shot in Oklahoma on a budget of around $2M. The film — the production, set design, and costumes of which are as meticulous as any film I’ve seen previously nominated for Oscars in those categories — bows today in select theaters.
Q’orianka Kilcher, who led the cast of Terrence Malick’s film The New World in 2005, is back again in another lead role, this time in role of Te Ata, the renowned Chickasaw storyteller — Mary Frances ‘Te Ata’ Thompson — who entertained at the White House, befriended the First Lady, performed for European Royalty and on stages around the world in a career that spanned more than 60 years. And just as she did in The New World, Kilcher knocks it out of the park.
You could say that Te Ata is one of many Hidden Figures in the Native American culture. As Ruth Hopkins (Dakota/Lakota), a tribal attorney, activist and Native writer, said in Beach’s column last month: “There are many Native stories that are not being told. We are so much more than stories of poverty, or hapless victims who must be rescued by a white savior.” And, as Beach said, “Audiences are being robbed by false representation of Native identity and the chance to bear witness to our truth.”
Te Ata, which also stars Graham Greene, Gil Birmingham, Mackenzie Astin, Brigid Brannagh and Cindy Pickett, was shot entirely in Oklahoma and great care was taken to tell one of those stories. Te Ata was inducted into the Oklahoma Hall of Fame in 1957 and was Oklahoma’s first Official State Treasure in 1987.
Robyn Elliott, Cabinet Secretary of the Chickasaw Nation Department of Communications and Community Development and press secretary to the Governor of the Chickasaw Nation, told Deadline: “We’ve been producing documentaries for a number of years. Governor Anoatubby’s idea was to share the story as a way to educate people about our impact in the early days of our country’s history. And today, we are still a thriving nation. It was his vision to use film to do that.”
The first film from the Chickasaw nation was Pearl about Pearl Carter Scott, the first licensed female pilot. “One of our goals is that with each feature film we also produce a documentary,” said Elliott.
How did they get such great production value from such a small budget? “We had a tremendous production team. We have a lot of good partners so were able to work with the schools,” said Elliott. “What helped us bring the budget way down was the locations that we were able to get.” She said many of the interior scenes were shot in different rooms of the same large, historical building.
Jeannie Barbour, a Chickasaw historian and the co-writer of the film who currently serves as the Creative Director for the Chickasaw Nation’s Department of Communications, explained. “In Guthrie, Oklahoma, there is a huge, historic building that serviced the masonic temple there for many, many years. We did one of the rooms in the White House there, we did the stage there. It’s a wonderful building fully restored.”
In addition, many Chickasaw participated as extras in the film. Some even had speaking roles. “It was just embraced by many, many people and many of our citizens,” said Barbour. The research on Te Ata started in 2011 as they began working with the family. “There is a lot out there as who she was as a performer but we really wanted to capture her as a person. They were wonderful to talk with and work with.”
Kilcher, who is Peruvian, then began researching the character, her mannerisms and voice pattern to bring authenticity to the role. “She understood how important it was to us to get certain elements of our culture and history correct,” said Elliott.
They started on the script in 2013 and a year later were before the cameras. With great direction by Nathan Frankowski (Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed), the film delves into what it meant to be Native American at a time when assimilation was forced upon the culture and how Eleanor Roosevelt (played by Gail Cronauer) made a difference for Native Americans behind the scenes. The film was produced by Paul Sirmons.
The film first dropped in Oklahoma before its L.A. and NY release today, courtesy of Paladin and the Chickasaw Nation. Te Ata will open in other cities nationwide after this weekend.
Both Elliott and Barbour said more films are on their way as the Chickasaw Nation is readying to tell many more stories. “We have a lot of stories left to go in the Chickasaw Nation,” said Barbour. “We are both Chickasaw so it means a great deal to us.”
Currently in post production is The Chickasaw Rancher which stars Martin Spence Meyer (Wind River, Magnificent Seven), Dermut Mulroney and Tommy Flannagan. They are also developing The Battle of Ackia about the Chickasaw participation in the French and Indian War.