Women filmmakers make ‘Mankiller’ documentary with a little help from ‘Walking Dead’ fans

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The upcoming PBS documentary "Mankiller." will tell the life story of the first woman elected chief of a major American Indian tribe, the Cherokee Nation. Photo provided

The upcoming PBS documentary “Mankiller.” will tell the life story of the first woman elected chief of a major American Indian tribe, the Cherokee Nation. Photo provided

During her tenure as the first woman chief of the Cherokee Nation, Wilma Mankiller not only helped break ground on health centers, rural water projects and the tribe’s first gaming facility, she also helped break down barriers.

“Going back perhaps 500 or 1,000 years ago, one must understand that the Cherokee people were a matriarchal society. Our clan membership translates to us through our mothers. Women secured and maintained a critical role in the decision-making of tribal society a thousand years ago,” said Cherokee Nation member and historian Jay Hannah.

“During the late 1970s and early 1980s when Wilma was … on the tribal government scene in Tahlequah, there had evolved sort of a 20th-century look that perhaps these women should not be speaking up, speaking out, taking control. Wilma helped to transition us back to our roots of understanding that no matter the gender, it’s the wisdom that leads our nation forward.”

Two camera operators and a sound mixer carefully documented Hannah’s insights into Mankiller’s childhood, political career and groundbreaking work as a woman during filming last month at Oklahoma City’s Oklahoma History Center, where I got to spend a morning on location with Mankiller, a new documentary on the first woman to be elected chief of a major American Indian tribe.

As I reported in the second of two stories published Friday on my BAM’s Blog, Gale Anne Hurd of Valhalla Entertainment, a top Hollywood producer with credits including The Walking Dead, Aliens and The Terminator, and Valerie Red-Horse, a director/producer of Cherokee descent,  have partnered for the project, their third documentary.

The documentary, which PBS likely will air in 2016, will tell Mankiller’s life story, including the deep prejudice she faced when she initially ran for deputy chief in 1983. In her best-selling autobiography, Mankiller: A Chief and Her People, the Tahlequah, Okla., native wrote about having her tires slashed during the campaign, while her running-mate, incumbent Principal Chief Ross Swimmer, had his house shot at, said Red-Horse, owner and founder of Red-Horse Native Productions.

“It was a first time a female had been on the ticket in a long, long time; really, ever in an elected situation,” Red-Horse told me in an interview.

“It was a difficult time. She really was approached with sexism, and people weren’t ready for a female leader. And she ignored all that and just broke through — she didn’t break through, she crashed through — any sort of glass ceiling … and just went on to win that election and two more for three unprecedented terms at the time. And (she) really looked at her role as not about being a woman or a man or a Democrat or a Republican, but how she could serve the people.”

Mankiller served as Cherokee principal chief from 1985 to 1995, and she was credited with boosting tribal enrollment, creating jobs and improving the tribe’s education, health and housing during that decade. In 1998, President Bill Clinton awarded Mankiller the Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor.

She died of pancreatic cancer in 2010 at the age of 64.

With the U.S. Treasury planning to redesign the $10 bill to feature a woman in 2020 to mark the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment, Mankiller has been mentioned as a possible candidate, along with the likes of Eleanor Roosevelt, Harriet Tubman and Rosa Parks.

“Not only was she a great leader and achieved a lot for the Cherokee Nation and laid a lot of important foundational work for the growth and economic development, she was an amazing human being. She really gives us some important lessons in servant leadership, in working across the aisle. She did not believe in political titles; she really believed in the true idea of community organizing and working with and for people. In my opinion, we could all take some lessons from that today,” Red-Horse told me in the first of two stories on my BAM’s Blog.

“I think she was just an incredible role model. Very humble to the point where her life is not well known. … I feel like it’s my honor to bring attention to what she did and what she really gave us.”

The Mankiller documentary illustrates how vital it is that women are afforded and subsequently seize opportunities to become producers, directors and other decision-makers in the entertainment industry: Although the documentary received its initial funding through PBS’ Vision Maker Media, Red-Horse told me it wasn’t enough to make the movie.

So, Hurd suggested launching a Kickstarter campaign, and in this social media era, she was able to use the clout she has achieved with the smash success of The Walking Dead to help crowd-fund a project of a completely different kind, one that should serve as an inspiration not just to women but also to native women.

“She as the executive producer of The Walking Dead obviously has a very big following, it. It’s a very popular show … and we weren’t sure if the two topics would connect: One is a zombie fictional piece, and the other is about a native woman. And they were so supportive,” Red-Horse told me.

“Her fan base really got behind the Kickstarter campaign, her office led the campaign, social media kicked in … and we were able to complete the funding successfully. And I credit The Walking Dead fan base for that.”

Corey Soap, a production assistant on the film and the grandson of Charlie Soap, Mankiller’s widower, told me that he thinks it is fitting that women filmmakers are telling his stepgrandmother’s life story.

“I think that’s going to be very helpful in portraying her story,” Soap said. “The opposition that Wilma faced as a woman, I think maybe a man director might overlook that. … But I think Valerie’s really concerned about that and is really going to showcase that part of the story very well.”

Red-Horse and her six-person, Los Angeles-based film crew spent four days last month in Oklahoma, lensing interviews with Mankiller’s family, friends and co-workers in Tahlequah and Oklahoma City.

The production headed back to California last month for a week of shooting in San Francisco, where Mankiller spent her formative teenage and young adult years and planted her roots as an activist for women and American Indians.

The crew still has one day of filming left to do in Los Angeles before the editing process begins, with the final cut due in December, Red-Horse told me. It’ll be exciting to see how the finished product tells the story of a fascinating, trailblazing woman.

Another study, more depressing stats on gender inequality

From 2007 through 2014, women made up only 30.2 percent of all speaking or named characters in the 100 top-grossing fictional films released in the United States.

That is one of the findings in a new study, “Inequality in 700 Popular Films,” that looks at gender, race, ethnicity and what one of the report’s researchers, Stacy L. Smith, describes as an “epidemic” when it comes to lack of diversity, reports the New York Times.

The report was produced by the Media, Diversity & Social Change Initiative at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism.

Only 1.9 percent of the movies were directed by women, the study found. In addition, not a single title in the top-grossing 100 fictional films in 2014 starred a woman over 45.

One reason is that Meryl Streep, the hardest-working woman in cinema, had only supporting roles, including in the Disney musical “Into the Woods,” according to the NY Times. According to the “Inequality” report, for 2014, “girls/women make up less than a third of all speaking characters on screen and less than a quarter of the leads/co-leads driving the story lines.”

As previously reported, the “Inequality” report is just the latest study to include such depressing statistics but it comes at a time of increasing criticism about the industry’s sexist practices. In May, the American Civil Liberties Union sent letters to state and federal agencies seeking an investigation of the hiring practices of the major Hollywood studios, networks and talent agencies.

Quick hitters

– Angelina Jolie Pitt and her Jolie Pas Productions have signed on with Aircraft Pictures, Cartoon Saloon and Melusine Productions for The Breadwinner, an animated feature based on the best-selling young adult novel by Canadian author Deborah Ellis. According to Deadline.com, Jolie Pitt will executive produce, while Nora Twomey (co-director of the gorgeous Oscar-nominated animated Irish film The Secret of Kells) will direct from a screen story by Ellis and screenplay by Anita Doron.

The Breadwinner tells the story of Parvana, an Afghan girl living under Taliban rule who disguises herself as a boy to become the breadwinner of the family when her father is unfairly imprisoned. A story of self-empowerment and imagination in the face of oppression, The Breadwinner also celebrates the culture, history and beauty of Afghanistan. A cut of the film will be produced in Dari in addition to the English-language version.

– Actress Sadie Frost (Bram Stoker’s Dracula) just completed a master of arts based on researching the sometimes difficult careers of female filmmakers, and according to The Guardian, next month she will become her own case study, when the first feature film from her own production company is released.

To make the psychological thriller, Buttercup Bill, Frost employed a team that was up to 80 percent female. Plus, Buttercup Bill’s lead actress, Rémy Bennett, granddaughter of the American singer Tony Bennett, co-wrote and co-directed the movie with Émilie Richard-Froozan. Frost co-produced Buttercup Bill with Emma Comley.

– In 1978, Marvel comics published Devil Dinosaur, a story by Jack Kirby about a red Tyrannosaurus Rex and his caveman-like friend, Moon-Boy. The series itself was short-lived, but come this fall, the world will once again be introduced to the adventures of Devil Dinosaur — and this time, his companion won’t be a caveman named Moon-Boy, but instead, a pre-teen super genius named Lunella Lafayette, otherwise known as Moon Girl, according to EW.com.

– The comic series The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen may be getting a female-centric film reboot, according to Collider. While doing press at the Television Critics Association press tour, producer John Davis acknowledged that the 2003 film version starring Sean Connery was not well-received and spoke highly of this summer’s hit movie Mad Max: Fury Road.

“Just by going back to the roots and making it authentic to what the fan base was really excited about. It’s female-centric, which I think is interesting. I love female characters, point-of-view characters in action movies. I thought Mad Max was great. I think you can always find a fresh way of doing something and going back to the basics. What is that people love? What is it that made them love the property in the first place?” Davis said.

– If you were baffled, horrified or maybe even kind of a little impressed (I’m really clumsy, OK?) by Bryce Dallas Howard’s character outrunning a T Rex in high heels in the mega-blockbuster Jurassic World, XPV Comedy has a parody for you. Check out their YouTube video that puts everyone in the Jurassic Park/World movies in heels. Yes, including the dinosaurs.



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