At first glance, with a title like Mankiller, you’d be forgiven for thinking that the new film from executive director Gale Anne Hurd (The Terminator, Aliens, and The Abyss) was about a completely different subject. It is, in fact, a documentary regarding the first woman to ever be elected chief of the Cherokee Nation, and for the whole of its 73 minutes, the film is nothing short of fascinating. As American feminist and social political activist, Gloria Steinem states, “In a just country, she would have been elected president.”
During the opening moments to director Valerie Red-Horse Mohl’s award-winning documentary, as seen in a news clip where Mankiller was awarded the Medal of Freedom, President Bill Clinton sets the scene. “When Wilma Mankiller was ten, she and her family were relocated from Cherokee lands in Oklahoma to San Francisco. It was San Francisco during the civil rights era that she found her voice and a belief in the power to make change.”
Using photographs, home-movies with faded color, archival TV reports, and new, present-day interviews with friends and family, and with those who had at one time worked with Wilma Mankiller, the documentary proceeds to tell her story from childhood to her rise of power. Wilma Mankiller felt she was an ordinary person, but one who was given the opportunity of doing something extraordinary in her life.
Despite our accepted knowledge of American history and what we think we know of our past, Mankiller fills the void in areas we never knew were missing. For instance, in an archival recording, Mankiller informs us that the Cherokees had a government before the United States had a government. “We had a treaty with Britain,” Mankiller explains, “Even before we had a treaty with the United States, or with one of its colonies.”
As President Clinton mentioned, it was Mankiller’s time in San Francisco that gave her direction, and it was her participation in the occupation of Alcatraz Island in 1969 by 89 American Indians, IOAT (Indians Of All Tribes) where that belief in the power to make change occurred. For Mankiller, it was a watershed moment. Hearing her fellow natives talk to the international press regarding land rights and tribal sovereignty, plus the need for health and better education, was liberating for her. It changed her life.
The film explores all areas, not only her political career but also her personal life, often emphasizing events that formed a determined character. After a severe car crash, Mankiller’s mother is shown telling an interviewer, “The doctor’s said she’d be in a wheelchair for the rest of her life, but she wouldn’t give up.” Later, Mankiller would look back on that devastating moment, stating, “I was no longer afraid of death, but I was no longer afraid of life.”
But perhaps it’s Mankiller’s eldest daughter Felicia who explains her mother’s determination the best. It not only sums up Wilma Mankiller’s strength, her drive, and her attitude, but helps explain that of the Cherokee Nation. “We truly believe that in everything negative, there’s something positive there,” explains Felicia. “You’ve just gotta see it. That’s a part of being Cherokee; that’s a part of being American Indian, and that’s part of being a good person and keeping a good mind.”
Mankiller is a well crafted documentary that not only tells a story, it inspires. At its conclusion, as you exit the theatre, you leave not only with a new found knowledge of a woman who overcame so much, including unbridled sexism in order to improve the lives of others, you may find yourself filled with a personal sense of empowerment.
And as for that name? It’s a traditional Cherokee military rank. But as Wilma Mankiller joked when repeatedly asked by reporters as to where she got it, “It’s a nickname,” she said, adding, “And I earned it!”
Mankiller can be seen Wednesday, February 28, 4pm at Mary D. Fisher Theatre, with a repeat performance, Friday, March 2, 7pm, also at Mary D. Fisher Theatre.
For a direct link to the 2018 Sedona International Film Festival schedule and to order tickets for Mankiller, Click Here