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Mankiller: A Heroine for the Ages

Ed Rampell: The Oklahoma-born Wilma Mankiller cut her political teeth at the famous Alcatraz Occupation that began in 1969 and Jane Fonda participated in.
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Native director Valerie Red-Horse Mohl’s well-made Mankiller was my favorite film at LAFF this year. Standing Rock has propelled American Indian issues to the forefront - for instance, Paiute/Shoshone helmer Myron Dewey co-directed Awake, A Dream From Standing Rock with Oscar nominee Josh Fox. Mankiller is a new documentary about the first female Principal Chief of the Cherokee Nation (ironically, the liberal Democrat reached that pinnacle due to Pres. Reagan’s appointment of her running mate to the Interior Department).

The Oklahoma-born Wilma Mankiller cut her political teeth at the famous Alcatraz Occupation that began in 1969 and Jane Fonda participated in.

The Oklahoma-born Wilma Mankiller cut her political teeth at the famous Alcatraz Occupation that began in 1969 and Jane Fonda participated in. As the Cherokees’ elected leader Mankiller achieved many reforms, including spurring tribally-owned businesses, various self-development projects and indigenous self-government initiatives. The doc also considers the highly contentious casino issue. In 1998 Pres. Clinton awarded Mankiller the Medal of Freedom and when she passed away in 2010 Pres. Obama issued a moving statement.

This 74-minute, cinematic biopic not only deals with indigenous issues, but also sexism. Interestingly, the film’s co-creators are both women, including director Valerie Red-Horse Mohl, who is also Cherokee. I enjoyed her 1998 feature Naturally Native, the first movie totally financed (with gaming money) by an Indian tribe, Connecticut's Mashantucket, and co-starred Red-Horse Mohl and Irene Bedard (the voice of Pocahontas in the Disney animated film).

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Feminist icon Gloria Steinem, who was specifically interviewed for the very well-directed Mankiller, appears throughout the doc. Wilma Mankiller was MS. Magazine’s Woman of the Year and sat on the Ms. Foundation board.

Mankiller’s executive producer, Gale Anne Hurd, is known for sci fi productions, including the current AMC zombie TV series The Walking Dead, The Terminator trilogy, Aliens, Armageddon, etc. Hurd was previously married to James Cameron and Brian De Palma, yet this Hollywood heavyweight and A-lister teamed up with Red-Horse Mohl to make indigenous-themed documentaries, including 2010’s Choctaw’s Code Talkers and now Mankiller.

Many run-of-the-mill docs incorporating talking heads and narrators are often dull and unoriginal, but through her editing, camerawork, etc., Red-Horse Mohl’s exceptional documentary is filmic, fluid and always absorbing to watch. This poignant biopic about one of the greats made me feel like weeping. Bravo!

Ed Rampell

Ed Rampell

Ed Rampell is an L.A.-based film historian/reviewer co-presenting Alexander Dovzhenko’s Arsenal on Friday, 7:30 p.m., June 23 at The L.A. Workers Center, 1251 S. St. Andrews Place, L.A., CA 90019. This is part of the ongoing “Ten Films That Shook the World” series celebrating the centennial of the Russian Revolution through November. For info: laworkersedsoc@gmail.com.