Montford Johnson is one of Oklahoma's many Indigenous heroes – a famed cattleman who lived in the Indian Territory and shaped the frontier into a real success story…that is until some well-meaning white people flipped it into the 46th state in 1907 and pretty much stole our land right in front of us.
But that’s water under the bridge, right?
Either way, the film story of Johnson has been recently told in the biopic Monford: The Chickasaw Rancher, directed by Nathan Frankowski and Chickasaw Nation Productions – a pair of collaborators who worked on another great biopic, Te Ata.
Starring the very Jason Momoa-esqe Martin Sensmeier, here, he is the eponymous Monford Johnson. With his Native mother dying and white father leaving to find work at a young age, he is raised by his Native grandmother and turns out to be a real good guy.
Like, a really good guy.
But, on his wedding day, we meet the big bad villain of the piece, the skeletal Confederate Sgt. Richter (James Landry Hébert) and his racist taunts.
Even though he has to deal with Richer and his reckless slaying of many Indigenous peoples, Johnson and his wife Mary (Grace Montie) eventually have a new baby and some well-trained bovines.
Over time, Johnson starts roping and branding the cattle and, with various community leaders, forms a company to swallow the livestock up. And while his family takes in the orphans left by the dastardly army, he also has to deal with an Irish bandit and his cronies, as well as Richter, who is part of the newly-united army.
Eventually, Johnson’s pa Boggy (Dermot Mulroney) comes calling. Before they hash out their familial squabbles, they travel to Florida to free about 70 men imprisoned for being Indigenous, still a serious offense. Even though the only way to free them is through a raging fire with murderous designs, eventually, Johnson’s story has a happy ending.
(Of course, he died in 1896 at the ripe old age of 52, but in those times, that was at least 133 years old.)
A very well-made film, made outside the Hollywood system around Davis in the Arbuckle Mountains (among other locations), Sensmeier, Mulroney, and Denim Richards, as Johnson’s partner Jack Brown, are great as the trio of heroes.
And, even though he made me physically angry, Hébert is wonderful as the snarling villain of the story.
That being said, what really stuck me about Johnson’s story—well, Richter’s story, I guess—is all about how it parallels Kevin Stitt’s ancestral story about the low-class theft of Indigenous land and the murderous intent of said land—though the McGirt decision—but I guess that’s another story for another time.