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Scorsese's Killers of the Flower Moon and the State of Native Cinema

Thomas Frenette

Arts & Culture Editor

Photo via Apple

Spoilers ahead

Killers of the Flower Moons, based on the novel written by David Grann, was announced by Martin Scorsese to be his last film. It is a period-piece on the Osage Reign of Terror in 1920s Oklahoma, which saw the anguish of the Osage communities at the hand of white interlopers who employed murderous means to secure the headrights to the oil-ridden plains.

I wanted to see the film because of my appreciation for Scorsese’s cinematography and personality—yes, I do agree that Marvel’s cinematic universe is comparable to attraction theme parks. I expected to reconnect with Taxi Driver’s idealistic, misguided, and lonely quest to self-discovery, King of Comedy’s meditation on humor and moral questionability of the rise to notoriety, and Goodfellas’ entertaining clique of night crawling bruisers.

However, as I walked out of the theater, the themes and characters I had engaged with in his previous films seemed inconsistent with Scorsese’s new production—the plot was away from New York, away from the mobster worldview…As a matter of fact the only recognizable markers in the film for me were the presence Leonardo DiCaprio and Robert De Niro. So what is the big deal of making it last three hours? And why choose him to direct a film on indigenous events?

As I rummaged through article and video essays online, it became increasingly obvious that Scorsese was an excellent pick. His masterful nuance of trust and betrayal, acute descriptions of the inner machinations of men, and the banality of white supremacy told through the white man’s perspective reflected the historical implications of the Osage massacre. The respect he has accumulated in cinephile circles during his half-century career also contributed to drawing in all types of people to the big screen.

An Osage director would no doubt fail to attract as large an audience, but the concession of commercial success did not translate to the neglect of Osage voices. Native actors include Lily Gladstone (Mollie) of Piegan Blackfeet and Nez Perce heritage, Tantoo cardinal (Lizzie Q) of Cree and Métis heritage, Cara Jade Myers (Anna) of Kiowa and Wichita heritage and Tatanka Means (John Wren) of Oglala Lakota, Omaha, Yankton Dakota, and Diné heritage. The late Robbie Robertson, who composed the soundtrack, is of Mohawk heritage and has scored ten of Scorsese’s films including The Wolf of Wall Street and Raging Bull.

In preparation for the film, Scorsese collected the concerns and insights of the Osage community and the Osage Nation Chief Geoffrey Standing Bear to review his intentions and ensure nuances of Osage culture would be handled with reverence in the film. As a result, the film benefits from a sense of realism in the events and conversations to form—perhaps for the first time in a film of this caliber, some critics and Native community leaders would argue—an accurate portrait of Native people in terms of the Osage language, regalia, and traditions. Christopher Cote, the Osage language consultant on set, said “not being Osage, I think [Scorsese] did a great job representing our people.” Jim Gray, a former chief of the Osage Nation, said “I’ve never seen a movie immerse itself in a culture like this film did with ours.”

However, a critique of the film is the emphasis of Ernest’s (Leonardo DiCaprio) perspective and the humanization of his character through his love for Mollie (Lily Gladstone) despite his active participation in the murder of her family. The violence against Indigenous communities is so normalized that it avoids sensationalism and makes the matters in play much more harrowing, even in the banal conversations between Ernest and his uncle Hale, which frequently treat the Osage people as living piggy banks to be destroyed and looted. 

When the men first reunite, Ernest unpacks his psychological makeup, which is dominated by a love for money, alcohol, women and the determination to acquire these by any means necessary. While the development of Ernest’s naive character compromises an adequate depiction of the paranoia of the Osage people as they are slaughtered in shops, in the streets, and even in their homes, it allows for Scorsese to hold up a mirror in front of society and say, “It is this easy to be complacent of these evil and discriminatory crimes; this is what humans are capable of doing if left unchecked.”

Fortunately, the end of the film finds us in a place of hope. The rejoicing pulse of the Pow Wow testifies to the survival of the Osage people in the face of violence and racism. It ought to serve as a catalyst for other cultures with histories of oppression to engage in a dialogue of reconciliation and press critical moral questions.

Employing one of its most celebrated film directors is a significant progress in American culture to engage with the process of carrying Native ancestors’ Sisyphean task of struggling to become more visible and heard. The success of the film in Native and non-Natives audiences is a promising milestone in the direction of Native cultures being able to express themselves on the big screen.


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