The film features renowned figures from Hollywood including Martin Scorsese, Robert De Niro, and Leonardo DiCaprio. It received financial support of $200 million from the tech giant Apple and has garnered rave reviews that are creating anticipation for potential Oscar recognition.
However, the book “Killers of the Flower Moon” is causing conflicting emotions and perspectives within Native American groups. The western true-crime story depicts the organized murders of Osage Nation members during the 1920s due to their valuable oil reserves.
Devery Jacobs, an Indigenous actor who played Elora in the TV drama Reservation Dogs, posted on social media X, formerly known as Twitter: “Being Native, watching this movie was fucking hellfire. Imagine the worst atrocities committed against (your) ancestors, then having to sit (through) a movie explicitly filled with them, with the only respite being 30 minute long scenes of murderous white guys talking about/planning the killings.”
The movie delves into the connection between Mollie Kyle, a member of the Osage tribe, and Ernest Burkhart, a World War I veteran who is employed by his corrupt uncle. The script is based on the 2017 bestseller by David Grann, titled the same as the film, and was adapted by Scorsese and Eric Roth.
Martin Scorsese, who is 80 years old, directed a bold 206-minute film that tells the story of the Osage murders. Originally, the script focused on white FBI agents, but Scorsese reworked it to give a more accurate portrayal from the perspective of the Osage Nation. He filmed on location in Oklahoma and hired Osage and other Indigenous actors for the cast. The Osage people were also involved in various aspects of production, including costumes, sets, and ensuring accurate representation of their customs and language.
However, Native American individuals who were interviewed by the Guardian have a multifaceted range of reactions to Killers of the Flower Moon. While they commend the film for its portrayal of Osage history and inclusion of Indigenous actors in significant roles, they also voice concerns about its explicit violence and lack of historical context, as well as its focus on white characters and absence of an Indigenous screenwriter or director.
Elizabeth Rule, a member of the Chickasaw Nation and an assistant professor at American University in Washington, expresses that as a Native viewer, watching the film was personally challenging. She sees this as a common critique and it aligns with her own experience.
“Although it may have been difficult to watch, it is crucial to bear witness to these heartbreaking stories. We must acknowledge that they depict real and calculated murders of Indigenous people, and it is valid to feel upset and uncomfortable witnessing such violence, particularly because it is based on true events.”
Through this, I recognize the significance of the film in its ability to bring attention to the violence that our communities have faced and continue to face, particularly for those who are not of Native descent.
Gladstone, an indigenous actor, has been hailed as the standout performer in Killers of the Flower Moon. However, some critics believe that her character is not as well-developed and compelling as those portrayed by DiCaprio and De Niro, resulting in the film primarily focusing on white men and the origins of the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
The Root website inquired, “Could Killers of the Flower Moon be considered the Indigenous Community’s version of Green Book?” This is in regards to the 2018 film, which won an Oscar but faced criticism for its portrayal of a “magical negro” character whose only role was to aid the white protagonist.
According to Rule, the author of “Indigenous DC: Native Peoples and the Nation’s Capital,” the primary focus of the storytelling was to highlight the perspectives of Indigenous characters. Additionally, Rule hopes that audiences understand that the violence portrayed in the story is not due to individual greed, but rather a result of the systemic devaluation of Indigenous lives through settler colonialism.
The movie provides insight into the experiences of a single family, but the theme of violence is a widespread issue among numerous tribes throughout the United States. Furthermore, this violence did not originate or cease in the 1920s. It stems back to the colonization of this land and persists even in present day.
However, Rule also mentions that she would like to commend and recognize the Native American individuals who contributed to the film, such as Lily Gladstone, Tantoo Cardinal, Tatanka Means, Robbie Robertson, and others. These individuals took on a sacred duty of portraying the lives and community of Indigenous people who were specifically targeted for violence because of their ethnicity.
I am grateful to the Osage community and family for sharing their story. It takes immense courage and strength to open up about painful experiences, and I am thankful for their sacrifice in doing so. Their story continues to impact millions of viewers today.
Mary Kathryn Nagle, a member of the Cherokee nation and a lawyer, playwright, and screenwriter from Oklahoma, shares the same sentiment. She is familiar with many of the actors and states, “The performances in this movie are truly remarkable. It has brought attention to an issue within the American public that many were not previously aware of, and that is incredibly significant.”
Nagle believes that the script could have provided a deeper character development and more agency for Mollie Burkhart’s character. While Martin Scorsese’s intent was to reflect white American society and allow the primarily white audience to relate to the characters played by Robert De Niro and Leonardo DiCaprio, Nagle would have preferred to see more of Mollie’s personal journey rather than just her reaction to the tragic events. Nagle suggests that there were significant actions and decisions made by Mollie that were not shown on screen and could have added depth to her character.
According to Nagle, whose production Manahatta will debut at the Public Theater in New York this month, Martin Scorsese made a genuine effort to collaborate with the Osage community and accurately portray their story.
I believe that if a Native person had been in charge, the main Native character would have had a more developed character arc. This is not a criticism of Lily’s acting ability, which was outstanding. However, Native writers tend to add more complexity and depth to their characters in these types of stories.
The author ends on a hopeful tone, acknowledging that change in Hollywood takes time. As Native individuals watching, it is crucial for us to consider what kind of representation we want to see in stories about our community. We can also take joy in this film and recognize the efforts of one of America’s greatest film-makers in creating a portrayal that avoids harmful stereotypes.
While we can certainly analyze the fact that the main Osage character’s character arc was not as well-developed as those of her white counterparts, it is worth acknowledging that the film did not rely heavily on common tropes and stereotypes typically found in this genre. Instead, we were presented with genuine and visually stunning depictions of the Osage people, a refreshing departure from what Hollywood has traditionally offered. This is definitely something to be celebrated.
Robert Warrior, a member of the Osage tribe and a professor at the University of Kansas specializing in American literature and culture, contends that Killers of the Flower Moon does not adequately address the impact of federal policies on the displacement of Native Americans. One example of this is the government’s influence in persuading the Osage to divide their reservation into smaller parcels of land.
During the 1920s, the race to extract oil led to immense wealth for the Osage people. However, they had the ability to pass down their “headright” shares to anyone, including non-Osage individuals. This resulted in white individuals taking on the role of “guardians” with their own hidden agendas. This ultimately set the stage for a series of murders.
The Warrior expresses gratitude for the accurate portrayal of the external symbols of the Osage culture, such as language and clothing. The inclusion of numerous Osage individuals in the film is also commendable.
I am equally disappointed with the movie and David Grann’s book because they fail to explain the underlying factors that led to these murders, as well as many others. The federal policy of allotment and the resulting bureaucracy allowed for the exploitation of Native resources by non-Osagers or non-Natives. Without acknowledging this, any attempt to comprehend this specific story falls short of its potential and fails to fulfill its purpose as a Hollywood film.
According to Dennis McAuliffe, a member of the Osage tribe and writer of The Deaths of Sybil Bolton: Oil, Greed, and Murder on the Osage Reservation, additional explanation is needed. He poses questions such as, “Was there any mention of headrights in the film? Was there any discussion of allotment? Did the film address how Osages were assigned guardians and how these guardians were able to embezzle millions of dollars from them? No.”
The guardians were depicted as killers, reflecting their actions in reality. However, there is no clear explanation of how this came to be. The role and responsibility of the US Congress in the events was not addressed, specifically their passing of the 1906 Osage Allotment Act. This act established the system of headrights and land ownership, as well as the role of guardians, which ultimately resulted in the murders. It is not my intention to pass judgement on the accuracy of the portrayal of Native Americans, but rather to highlight the inaccuracy of the historical context and the system that led to this tragedy.
McAuliffe points out that his and Grann’s books heavily relied on information from FBI documents. He suggests that if the story were to be written today by someone who had not read these files, such as Native writers, directors, or producers, the story would have a completely different perspective.
“I’m not saying the movie was good, bad or indifferent. Actually, to tell you the truth, I was so prepared for the worst that I actually kind of liked it. Let me quote my cousin, who saw it shortly before he died: ‘It wasn’t as bad as I feared.’ That’s exactly what I would say.”