Until now, the only major Hollywood film made about Native American athlete Jim Thorpe featured Burt Lancaster, a White man, in the lead role. That history will not repeat itself, as the creative team behind a new biopic on Thorpe seeks greater authenticity by working with Indigenous tribes and casting an Indigenous leading man.
The Hollywood Reporter reported yesterday (May 7) that Martin Sensmeier will portray Thorpe in “Bright Path: The Jim Thorpe Story.” Sensmeier told Anchorage Daily News in 2016 that he hails from Yakutat, a sparsely populated area of Alaska, and identifies as Alaska Native. His resume includes roles in “Westworld,” “The Magnificent Seven” and “Wind River.”
THR noted that Sensmeier will also executive produce the film with a production team that includes Angelina Jolie (“By the Sea”) and Abraham Taylor (“The Jerk Theory”). Taylor penned the original screenplay with Alex Nibley (“Field of Honor”) and Sterlin Harjo (“Mekko”), a filmmaker from the Seminole Nation of Oklahoma with Muskogee heritage.
They will develop “Bright Path” in consultation with Thorpe’s family and a number of Indigenous tribes, including the Tuolumne Band of Me-Wuk Indians, Yocha Dehe Wintun Nation, Tonto Apache Tribe, Bear River Band of the Rohnerville Rancheria and Mohegan Tribe. These tribal groups will also help finance the film.
“As Native Americans, it is crucial that we tell our own stories,” Mohegan tribal chairman Kevin Brown (“Red Eagle”) told THR. “Thorpe’s is a vital one, and ‘Bright Path’ will break barriers. For the first time, a major motion picture about a Native man, starring a Native man, will be made and released to a broad general audience. We couldn’t be prouder to be a part of it.”
“Our father’s accomplishments in life are a great source of pride to us,” added Jim’s son Bill Thorpe. “In the more than six decades since Burt Lancaster’s ‘Jim Thorpe: All American,’ our family has heard of dozens of attempts to bring this story to modern audiences, but we have never shared the vision of a movie until the authentic portrayal in ‘Bright Path.’”
According to “Native American Son: The Life and Sporting Legend of Jim Thorpe,” Thorpe was born in the Indian Territory (contemporary Oklahoma) in 1887. Thorpe, a member of the Sac and Fox Nation, distinguished himself in football, baseball, and track and field at an early age. He went on to earn two gold medals in the decathlon and pentathlon at the 1912 Olympic Games. The International Olympic Committee stripped him of his medals because he played minor-league baseball, which he didn’t know was a violation of the body’s rules about amateur athletes. The medals were restored in 1982.
Thorpe went on to play with Major League Baseball and the American Professional Football Association, a precursor to the National Football League. He also pursued an acting career. By the time of his death from heart failure in 1953, the sporting world recognized him as one of the greatest athletes of all time. The town of Jim Thorpe, Pennsylvania, which his widow Patricia Askew helped incorporate after Oklahoma wouldn’t erect an official monument to him, bears his name.