Te Ata

Movie review by
Joyce Slaton, Common Sense Media
Te Ata Movie Poster Image
Underrated cultural hero gets her due in earnest biopic.
  • PG
  • 2017
  • 105 minutes

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Positive Messages

Many positive/inspirational messages can be drawn from Te Ata's life, from the value of staying true to yourself to the rewards that hard work, bravery, courage, and perseverance can bring. Also spotlights the mistreatment of Native American people in general and the Chickasaw in particular.

Positive Role Models & Representations

Te Ata is depicted as steadfast, loving, proud, talented, and brave; she's a loyal daughter in a loving family. Her Native American community is generally supportive and close-knit. Many white characters are portrayed as having prejudice against the Chickasaw people (a bias that is intended to be seen as incorrect/misinformed); several refer to the need for Te Ata's people to "assimilate" and talk about their "pagan" and "witch doctor" Native rituals. 


A white man yells at a Native man for "trespassing" on his land. Minutes later, a gunshot rings out (offscreen). Viewers see the Native man on the ground with blood spreading beneath him as Te Ata cries hysterically. 


A couple falls in love but only kisses briefly on-screen. Te Ata is offered a role that involves wearing a brief costume ("Pocahontas, are you OK wearing this?" asks a sleazy producer; "You first!" says an angry Te Ata, leaving).


References to Native American "witch doctor" and "pagan" rituals, as well as many references to "the white man." Otherwise, language is along the lines of "dang."

Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that Te Ata is an inspirational drama set in the early 1900s about a Native American woman who spread cultural awareness through her long performance career. Her life is a study in steadfast courage, perseverance, and pride in her Chickasaw heritage and offers many positive messages for viewers. There's no smoking, drugs, drinking, sex, or swearing, although some scenes include mild racial insults -- such as when a group of U.S. government officials refers to "pagan" and "witch doctor" Native rituals and insists that Native people need to "assimilate." A brief violent image shows a murdered man lying on the ground, with a spreading pool of blood around him. A couple kisses, and a woman is asked to wear a skimpy costume for a stage performance (she refuses). Young viewers may well have questions about the historical treatment of Native people in America after watching.

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What's the story?

Based on the true story of Mary Thompson Fisher, TE ATA tells how she became one of the greatest Native American performers of all time. Born as Mary Frances Thompson into the Chickasaw tribe in 1895 -- a time when it was customary (and even legal!) to discriminate fiercely against Native people -- Te Ata (Q'orianka Kilcher) is the daughter of proud Native leader T.B. Thompson (Gil Birmingham) and the niece of longtime Chickasaw Nation governor Douglas Johnston (Graham Greene). She becomes the first Native woman to attend the Oklahoma Women's College, where a sympathetic teacher (along with the isolation she experiences because of feeling different from the other students) convinces Te Ata that she can and should perform onstage, telling the stories she's learned from her people. But in an era when the crowning ambition of every actress is to make it on Broadway, how can Te Ata find an audience -- and make a living -- with her utterly unique act, championing the history and culture of a downtrodden people? 


Is it any good?

Meaningful, moving, and focused on a fascinating woman who made a major cultural impact but is now relatively unknown, this earnest biopic is affecting, if a little slow-moving. Shedding light on a dark chapter of American history, the drama teases out details of how real people were affected by shameful U.S. legislation that made Native practices, religious rites, and even objects such as eagle feathers and traditional long hairstyles, illegal. It also illustrates the pain often felt by those who feel different and unwelcome, showing us a young Te Ata who sits alone on her college lawn, isolated while her classmates walk by in little groups of two and three. 

But it's not long before Te Ata/Mary is receiving some great advice from a teacher: that being utterly different from those around you can be an advantage instead of a "crutch." What Te Ata can show the world is something very different from the "little sugar cookies" who won't sit by her in class. And in this drama (and without a doubt, in real life), Te Ata's performances are so powerful and evocative that they may move sensitive viewers to shed a few tears. Te Ata is quiet, deliberate, maybe even a little slow. But in championing a woman who opened both eyes and hearts, it provides Te Ata her rightful place in the pantheon of women who made history. 

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about Te Ata's life. What makes her story a good inspiration for a movie? What other people would you like to see movies made about?

  • How does Te Ata show courage and perseverance in her decision to stay true to her heritage in her performance career? Why are these important character strengths? Do you consider her a role model?

  • How accurate do you think the movie is compared to what actually happened? Why might filmmakers choose to tweak the facts in movies that are based on true stories?

Movie details

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