MOVIE: “Te Ata,” the biopic of a fa­mous storyteller, falls short in telling her sto­ries

The Denver Post - - LIFE & CULTURE - By Pat Padua Pro­vided by Paladin-Chick­a­saw Na­tion Pro­duc­tions

★¼55 Rated PG. 105 min­utes.

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 en­tirely 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. Gover­nor 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 some­how 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.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from USA

© PressReader. All rights reserved.