Review: ‘Mankiller’

New doc profiles Wilma Mankiller’s leadership and legacy

6 mins read

(USA, 77 min.)
Dir. Valerie Red-Horse Mohl

“My own role has just been to be here for a tiny tiny period of time in the totality of history,” says Wilma Mankiller at the end of new bio-doc about her. “I guess I don’t think I leave any great legacy and I hope that when I leave, it will just be said that I did what I could.”

It’s a year for giving notable women in history their due credit and Mankiller’s reflection on her legacy is an understatement of high modesty. Shortly after Ruth Bader Ginsburg proved herself the coolest superhero since Black Panther, Wilma Mankiller shows her muscles as a trailblazer for equality in the USA. Mankiller gives Indigenous women and audiences their RBG with this respectful profile of the late figure who dedicated her life to fighting for justice and equal rights. Significant for its dissection of the battle for Indigenous sovereignty in the USA and as a work of intersectional feminist filmmaking, Mankiller is an admirable portrait of a leader.

This doc by Valerie Red-Horse Mohl charts Mankiller’s time on this physical earth and her journey to become the first female Chief of the Cherokee Nation. Mankiller’s experience is inextricably linked to the fight of Indigenous persons in the USA and the doc observes the fight for sovereignty in tandem with her rise to power. The film sees instances of displacement, which talking heads liken to a contemporary Trail of Tears injustice, as Mankiller and her family found themselves uprooted from their tribal lands in Oklahoma. Her years in San Francisco, where she eventually married Ecuadorian immigrant Hector Hugo Olaya de Bardi and had two daughters, brought her in first contact with the fight for Indigenous sovereignty.

This episode of Mankiller sees several of the talking heads discuss the significance of the Indigenous occupation of Alcatraz Island. The protest drew attention to the fact that the relevant treaty observed that unused land must be returned to its original inhabitants and still photographs show Mankiller as an important member in this chapter of history. The doc shows the fight to be a success and a landmark step in a struggle at which Mankiller was on the front lines throughout her life and career.

The bulk of the film concerns Mankiller’s political career that advanced in 1983 when incumbent Chief of the Cherokee Nation Ross Swimmer tapped her to be his deputy chief in his bid for re-election. A new interview with Swimmer accompanies archival interviews with Mankiller as they both discuss the virulent misogyny that dogged the campaign when men jeered at the idea of a female leader. Mankiller admits that she experienced “more discrimination as a woman than as an Indian,” and the film bridges the struggle for Indigenous rights with the women’s movement and the fight for equality nationwide. The film, furthermore, smartly opens by framing Mankiller’s significance within the Cherokee’s legacy as a matriarchal culture and it gradually suggests that her leadership is a de-colonial return to order.

Cut to a few years later and Mankiller is the Chief of the Cherokee Nation when Swimmer pursues a position in the Reagan administration. The film dips into greatest hits territory, understandably so, as it extols the many advances the Cherokee saw under Mankiller’s leadership including economic and social prosperity fuelled by investment in gambling. Mankiller shows the fresh perspectives and pragmatism one can bring to public service with life experience that differs from prior leaders.

While Mankiller doesn’t break conventions of broadcast-quality profile documentaries and their reliable formula of interviews and archival footage, it conveys Mankiller’s story and significance in plain and accessible terms. Absent of the subject herself, who died from complications related to cancer in 2010, Mankiller inevitably lacks the same bite that makes a film like RBG so timely and relevant, but Red-Horse Mohl provides enough archival footage of her subject to ensure that others aren’t always speaking for her. The talking heads include an admirable range of voices from Mankiller’s daughters Gina and Felicia, to feminist icon Gloria Steinem. One leaves the film assured that no matter how tiny an amount of time Mankiller graced the earth, she made a difference.

Mankiller opens at the Hot Docs Fred Rogers Cinema on Saturday, June 9 as part of Luminato’s Game Changers Series.


Pat Mullen is the publisher of POV Magazine. He holds a Master’s in Film Studies from Carleton University where his research focused on adaptation and Canadian cinema. Pat has also contributed to outlets including The Canadian Encyclopedia, Paste, That Shelf, Sharp, Xtra, and Complex. He is the vice president of the Toronto Film Critics Association and an international voter for the Golden Globe Awards.

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