‘Killers of the Flower Moon’ and Why Native Stories Should Be Told by Native Filmmakers (Commentary)

Scorsese’s film is a meaningful step for representation, but it’s time to give Native storytellers the megaphone

killers-of-the-flower-moon-martin-scorsese-lily-gladstone
Apple Original Films

Martin Scorsese is a master and his latest film, “Killers of the Flower Moon,” tells the story of the Osage murders of the 1920s. It’s an incredible piece of cinema in many ways, but Scorsese’s talent and craftsmanship can only take this story so far. At the end of the day, “Killers of the Flower Moon” captures a tragic chapter of Native American history on the Osage Nation involving Osage people, but is still told by white men, from the perspective of white men, instead of from Natives.

While this is arguably a positive step in the right direction — that this harrowing story was picked up by an iconic director who is giving it mainstream attention at all is noteworthy — the next step needs to be Native storytellers telling our stories and presenting them to global audiences with an equitable platform.

When Scorsese took on this project in 2017, an adaptation of David Grann’s book of the same name, alongside lead actor and executive producer Leonardo DiCaprio, the excitement was palpable. A famed director. A proven actor. An intriguing, if devastating, story of “forgotten” U.S. history about when the Osage people discovered oil on their land and become the wealthiest per capita people in the world only to have white people marry them, kill them and take their “headrights.”

Among many Native Americans, myself included as an enrolled citizen of the Muscogee (Creek) and Cherokee Nations who grew up in Oklahoma, this twist of fate seemed to be a promising door opening. Scorsese himself recognized these tragic money-minded murders as an important story to tell, and the American masses and beyond would finally know the truth thanks to him.

For too many years our history books have silenced our stories. As someone who grew up in Oklahoma, I was never taught in school about the Osage murders or the Tulsa Race Massacre. Learning about those events came from family, as my Native mother drove me around the Greenwood district of Tulsa as a child to show me where Black Tulsans were murdered and what could have been. It’s honestly wild to know that these two tragedies were happening at about the same time in the same state — a detail Scorsese makes clear in his film.

But after seeing “Killers of the Flower Moon,” I am convinced that a Native director telling this truth from the Native perspective would have been the best path to authenticity. While Scorsese opened the door — even realizing mid-development that there needed to be more Osage focus and involvement — it’s not enough.

For a film that spotlights a wretched time in U.S. and Oklahoma history, when words like “guardians” and “incompetent” flowed so freely, referring to white “managers” of people and their money taken away from perfectly competent Natives, respectively, isn’t that ironically what this movie is cautioning against? White people speaking for Natives? Telling our stories from their perspectives? In 2023, it’s time to pass the collective baton.

K. Devery Jacobs (Mohawk), who starred in the Native-led and created series “Reservation Dogs,” even spoke to this in an X thread this week, where she said that watching this movie as a Native “was fucking hellfire.”

“But while all of the performances were strong,” she wrote, “if you look proportionally, each of the Osage characters felt painfully underwritten, while the white men were given way more courtesy and depth.” Would this have happened if a Native director told this story?

The “heart of the movie,” as mentioned by multiple critics, is the dynamic lead actress Lily Gladstone (Siksikaitsitapi/Nimíipuu), who stars as Mollie Burkhart (née Kyle), an Osage woman whose mother and sisters die one after the other. After marrying the white nephew of the murderous mastermind (Robert De Niro), she becomes extremely ill while receiving insulin “treatment” from her supposedly loving yet equally murderous husband (DiCaprio).

How different would this movie have been had it been from Mollie’s perspective, using more details of discovery from Grann’s book when she learns of one sister being shot and another sister dying in a mysterious explosion? Instead, we have the malignant machinations of DiCaprio’s Ernest and his uncle driving the story.

As Christopher Cote, an Osage language consultant on the film, said at the film’s premiere earlier this month, “As an Osage, I really wanted this to be from the perspective of Mollie and what her family experienced, but I think it would take an Osage to do that. … Martin Scorsese, not being Osage, I think he did a great job representing our people, but this history is being told almost from the perspective of Ernest Burkhart and they kind of give him this conscience and kind of depict that there’s love. But when somebody conspires to murder your entire family, that’s not love. That’s not love, that’s just beyond abuse.”

KIllers of the Flower Moon
Lily Gladstone and Leonardo DiCaprio in “Killers of the Flower Moon” (Apple TV+)

Early in the film, when De Niro’s character William Hale is trying to convince Ernest that it would benefit him and his white family to marry into an Osage family, he tells his nephew that the Osage “don’t talk much” — a common misconception about Natives in general.

We do talk. A lot. In fact, a week before the official Oc. 20 opening, Native-led social justice org IllumiNative hosted its inaugural Indigenous House in Los Angeles, spotlighting Native trailblazers including Sterlin Harjo (Seminole/Muscogee (Creek)) of “Reservation Dogs” fame and Jhane Myers (Comanche/Blackfeet), who produced the film “Prey.” Those are just two Native creatives who have changed the narrative of television and film by telling Native stories from an Indigenous perspective.

Seeing Natives from so many Nations gather in one place to celebrate their fellow creatives was inspiring and fulfilling. Seeing the laughter, the support, the teasing, the talking and community reminded me of our power and potential.

Not only that, but the Cherokee Nation this summer introduced its newly expanded film commission, an endeavor led by Senior Director Jennifer Loren. With campaigns using the hashtag #MoreNatives, Loren and her team have championed Native stories to be filmed on the Nation in Oklahoma, in production facilities built and run by Cherokees on Cherokee land.

We are succeeding in telling these much-needed Native stories and giving Natives more opportunities to use their voice on a broader scale. But, as Hale tells Ernest, time passes and people stop caring — if they ever did to begin with. It is time for a “reckoning.” Scorsese’s telling of the Osage “Reign of Terror” is a meaningful step, but a step nonetheless.

This history is real and still reverberates with Indigenous people. In fact, this moment in time wasn’t so long ago. I still have the paperwork declaring my full-blooded Creek grandma as competent, a distinction that had less to do with her mental capacity than with her land allotment. I still have the pictures of my mom at a Native boarding school. I still have my own government-issued card telling me just how much “Indian blood” I have.

We Native people have our own stories that only we can tell. Not as mere consultants but as true storytellers. And unlike that dehumanizing misconception that’s informed even modern media, we do talk, we do laugh, we eat, we cry, we sing, and we mourn. After all, we are still here. And we care.

Let’s give Native voices the opportunity to show audiences why they should care, too.

Comments

4 responses to “‘Killers of the Flower Moon’ and Why Native Stories Should Be Told by Native Filmmakers (Commentary)”

  1. Mark A. York Avatar

    Well, sure, but first one must have the connections to get the film made and it’s unlikely American Indians of any tribe would. As a screenwriter myself and author, Lily narrating the story could get weird as she is on her way to being a victim. Does she see it coming? I don’t know. Possibly she narrates from the beyond the grave like Isabel May does in 1883 and 1923. Sometimes all you can do is flesh out the villains to expose them as a means to an end and leave it at that: a signpost on the trail to a better society.

    1. Joe Avatar
      Joe

      Uhhhh you must not be that great of a screenwriter if thats all you can think of for telling the story from Lillys perspective. Also, the point isnt just to tell it from her perspective, it’s that it’s told from a Native perspective by a native director and cast and crew. Also, I have no doubt that natives can make a film of this caliber (as far as production is concerned) without Hollywood connections, but I do think it wouldn’t receive the same kind of attention nor be shown on these large platforms without them, which is proof of Hollywood gate keeping and cronyism by white people (specifically men). If Scorsese really wanted to tell this story and do right by the Osage, he should’ve produced it and let a Native director helm it. His name as producer would’ve opened doors in Hollywood, not to mention the rest of the A list cast.

      1. Joe Avatar
        Joe

        Uhhhh you must not be that great of a screenwriter if thats all you can think of for telling the story from Lillys perspective. Also, the point isnt just to tell it from her perspective, it’s that it’s told from a Native perspective by a native director and cast and crew. Also, I have no doubt that natives can make a film of this caliber (as far as production is concerned) without Hollywood connections, but I do think it wouldn’t receive the same kind of attention nor be shown on these large platforms without them, which is proof of Hollywood gate keeping and cronyism by white people (specifically men). If Scorsese really wanted to tell this story and do right by the Osage, he should’ve produced it and let a Native director helm it. His name as producer would’ve opened doors in Hollywood, not to mention the rest of the A list cast. 
        Also, its such a white people thing to say, “oh well, sometimes all the rest of you can do is deal with it and move on” Nah, fuck that. Not good enough. We’re not going to settle for that. We’re going to keep fighting to tell our own stories our own way and have proper representation and continue to call out white supremacy until it’s completely dismantled eradicated. No more white people telling our stories! 

  2. R. A. P. Avatar
    R. A. P.

    I’m not white, but I can tell that the author has a deep seated anger towards whites. Maybe rightfully so, but that kind of hate probably wouldn’t lend itself to something watchable on the big screen either. Heavily woke films are a good way to only attract a particular type of audience or is used in a way to further polarize and divide than to create understanding. A good screenwriter well tell the most honest point of view from all sides of the story, not just whites, and not just the Osage Indians. Why, because people are more complex than that. They are not just caricatures of villainy or goodness. In the same today we can’t say Israelis hands are completely clean and neither is the Palestinians. But not to get too off subject. As a Mexican American I have faced racism from all cultures. Not just whites, and I see as a common flaw of the average man. Whites just catch more heat because they have been in places of power for much longer, which stirs resentment. I know I’ve felt it too. But what is the author really mad at here but his own admission having a marquee director and top level talent bring together a story that otherwise never would have been seen is not such a bad thing in my opinion. If anything he may be one of the few fighting for these kinds of stories to exist at the top of the food chain when all Hollywood wants time do is create another DC or Marvel movie featuring actors in tights. The author should kill his sense of entitlement he has to this story. History is collective. Not owned by one side or the other. You want to tell your own version…fine go do it. That’s your write. I’m sure someone could probably write a far less grandiose and much more intimate version of this. But don’t stand on a soap box and scream its all wrong when you have the agency to do it yourself and tell it however you want. Hollywood isn’t in the business of telling stories just for the sake of it. They also have to make sure it has enough appeal to reach a general audience and make its money back. And as far as I know Scorsese really went out on a limb here because none of the bigger studios wanted to make it. It only got distributed by Paramount on the tail end. If you think a nobody Indian director has a better chance of getting this movie greenlit and seen then you’re probably a little bit delusional. This is the same reason The Creator tanked. They went with a fairly unknown, unestablished director.

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