TULSA – A Chickasaw icon is getting re-introduced to a national audience on the big screen.
After more than a year on the festival circuit, “Te Ata” opened commercially in Oklahoma recently with red carpet premieres in Ada and Tulsa. Produced by the Chickasaw Nation and distributed by Paladin, the storyteller’s biopic is now in national release.
“It’s a little nerve-wracking to see what other folks might think,” Jeannie Barbour, Chickasaw Nation Creative Development Director, said at the film’s Sept. 28 red carpet premiere at Circle Cinema. “I’m optimistic, mainly because I got to see audience reaction at film festivals. It has a lot of universal appeal and the story deals with the same types of issues anyone would have.”
Born Mary Frances Thompson near Tishomingo, Te Ata attended what is now the University of Science and Arts of Oklahoma and went on to perform on a St. Louis-based Chautauqua circuit, telling traditional stories not only from the Chickasaw Nation, but over time, gained permission from other tribes to tell their stories as well.
During the course of her six-decade career, Te Ata performed for both on Broadway and for multiple world leaders, including Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt and King George VI of England.
Barbour joined the Chickasaw Nation’s communications department in 2011. Her first task: start doing the research necessary in order to bring Te Ata’s story to the screen.
She then spent the next two years interviewing friends and family, criss-crossing the country on site visits and scouring letters, newspaper clippings and other period documents.
Although the bulk of the film is set in the 1920s and 1930s, Barbour had no problem finding first hand accounts and primary documents to help flesh out all the details.
“Her family wanted to talk about her at every turn,” she said with a chuckle. “All I had to do was pick up the phone and make a call.”
Quechua-Huachipaeri actress Q’orianka Kilcher portrays the Chickasaw storyteller. A native of Hawaii by way of the Amazon, Kilcher was appreciative of the fan-packed lobby at the film’s Tulsa premiere.
“It’s so beautiful to be able to come here and do the first premiere…where the spirit of the film is,” she said. “It’s been so heartwarming to see all the love and support from everyone here in Oklahoma and the different tribes that are coming.
“It’s beautiful because this film is inspiring and carries out the message Te Ata hoped for throughout her career to be that bridge and connect people.”
The movie was shot almost entirely in Oklahoma, with several scenes filmed on location within the Chickasaw Nation and Guthrie pinch-hitting for New York City.
The Chickasaw Nation helped facilitate casting with open calls for extras and providing a cameo appearance for the tribe’s current governor, Bill Anoatubby.
“This is our attempt to tell our stories from our perspective,” Barbour said. “This is a person who did some fantastic things throughout her life that impacted history for Native people.”
Te Ata died in 1995, less than two months before her 100th birthday. The first initiate into USAO’s Hall of Fame, she was inducted into the Oklahoma Hall of Fame in 1957 and named Oklahoma’s first State Treasure in 1987.
Directed by Nathan Frankowski, other cast members include Mackenzie Astin (“Scandal”), Gil Birmingham (“Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt”), Graham Greene (“Longmire”) and Sand Springs native Cindy Pickett (“Ferris Bueller’s Day Off”).
To watch the trailer visit the film website.
To find a showing near you visit here.