Friday, November 24, 2023

While imperfect in its representation of the Osage Nation, "Killers of the Flower Moon" highlights the Osage's important story

Martin Scorsese recently released his latest film, "Killers of the Flower Moon." In honor of Native American Heritage Day, this blog post takes up the issue of how the Osage Nation received the film. 

"Killers of the Flower Moon" or ("Killers") is a three-and-a-half hour epic western, romance, and comedy. "Killers" is based on David Grann's 2017 acclaimed nonfiction book, whose subtitle is: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI. This film tells a dark and painful chapter of the Osage nation. It is inspired by true events. 

Scorsese decided that the heart of "Killers" should be the relationship between Mollie and Ernest Burkhart, an Osage woman whose family members were mysteriously dying off (Lily Gladstone), and her settler husband (Leonardo Dicaprio). 

The film takes place around Pawhuska, Oklahoma, shortly after World War IPawhuska is the county seat of Osage County, Oklahoma. With a population of 2,984, Pawhuska is rural according to the U.S. Census Bureau definition. 

While the Osage's ancestral domain included much of Oklahoma, legends indicate that the tribe originally lived near the mouth of the Green River in Kentucky. In paleolithic times they ranged from the fork of the Ohio River to the Mississippi and beyond, according to the Oklahoma Historical Society. The ancestral home of the Osage was part of the Louisiana Purchase that the U.S. acquired in 1803. Missouri achieved statehood in 1821, and soon after over 5,000 Osage were removed west to the "Indian Territory."

By 1872, American settlers forced the Osage to relinquish most of their remaining homelands and relocate to a reservation in present-day Oklahoma. In 1897, the Indian Territory Illuminating Oil Company discovered vast oil deposits under their new reservation. The Osage had the mineral rights to the oil discovered, which made them some of the richest people in the world by the 1920s. This oil wealth also made them targets of a murder conspiracy.

"Killers" tells the true story of the so-called "reign of terror," when members of the Osage Nation were murdered after they became wealthy from the discovery of oil underneath their land. The murder conspiracy was concocted by affluent rancher William K. Hale (played in the film by Robert DeNiro). The film revolves around the relationship of an Osage woman, Mollie Kyle and white World War I veteran Ernest Burkhart, who is Hale's nephew. 

The Osage murders became the U.S. Bureau of Investigation's first major homicide investigation

"Killers" was met with critical acclaim and was widely acclaimed by critics and audiences, receiving a rare 93 percent tomatometer rating, with one reviewer writing:
Enormous in runtime, theme, and achievement, Killers of the Flower Moon is a sobering appraisal of America's relationship with Indigenous peoples and yet another artistic zenith for Martin Scorsese and his collaborators.

However, not everyone received the film well initially. When Martin Scorsese indicated he would direct and co-write "Killers," plenty of Osage people were skeptical. Since the film largely centers around a white man, many Osage members criticized the film, including Christopher Côté, an Osage language consultant on the film: 

As an Osage, I really wanted this to be from the perspective of Mollie and what her family experienced, [b]ut I think it would take an Osage to do that.

Former Osage Nation Chief Jim Gray told CNN about his initial hesitancy about the creation of "Killers." Gray served as the Osage Nation chief from 2002 to 2010, and he is direct descendent of one of the Osage murder victims. Today, he is the principal consultant at D.B.A. Gray Consultants. Gray expressed initial reaction with the film:

I was worried we were going to get exploited again — not so much in losing resources and our land, but in the telling of the story of how we lost our resources and land.

In an editorial in the Tulsa World, Gray explained that while he has an uncomfortable perspective with the film and the history it tells, overall he is pleased that it highlights Osage history.

Devoid of today’s understanding of how we think of ourselves as Americans and our so-called exceptionalism, this movie lures you in with the beauty of the Osage culture and the excitement of the oil boom. Then it grabs you by the lapels and demands that you pay attention to what society and federal Indian policy thought of Indigenous people when the lure of money brought in society’s every dark element to engage in an orgy of theft, murder and exploitation. It wasn’t just bad people doing bad things; it was bad federal policy that permitted it. 
Gray commented that he was glad that, before the film was shot, Scorsese and "Killers" film crew recognized and listened to how the Osage tribe and community were impacted by these murders.

In 2019, Scorsese and his team met with members of the Osage Nation and others to discuss "Killers." At the meeting, Gray and other tribe members got the chance to voice their concerns about the script and the film, offer feedback, and share ideas that partially changed the trajectory and theme of "Killers." Gray wrote in the op-ed:
If we don't take control of our own story and communicate our own narrative about our own history then somebody else will.
Due to the consultation with the Osage community, Osage orthography and language is spoken by both Osage and non-Osage actors. Throughout the film, the characters don traditional clothing made by Osage artisans. The scenery in the film is accurately depicted and was filmed on the Osage reservation.

Gray said that the Scorsese team welcomed the consultation with and feedback from the Osage nation. He suggested that this should be an industry standard in Hollywood: 
If you're going to make a movie with indigenous content this is the model you need to follow [b]ecause this history of Hollywood misrepresenting indigenous stories is something that should remain in the past.
Gray suggested that by centering the story on Ernest Burkhart and William Hale, perhaps "Scorsese was asking all of us to consider our part in this whitewashing of our history and possibly his own complicity as a filmmaker." 

Chad Renfro, the tribe’s ambassador for the film and a consulting producer on the project, mentioned that even if it is not perfectly told, it is positive that such a major movie highlighted the Osage's important story
It’s not every day that a small Native nation gets this platform. This is a horrific story, and it is something that is really hard for us to watch. But it is thrilling to say the least to see it come to life in such a way.
"Killers of the Flower Moon" is playing in theaters now, but it will eventually be available to stream on Apple TV+. To read more posts about indigenous peoples, see here and here

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