The transformation of Hollywood takes time: Insights from Indigenous audience members on Killers of the Flower Moon.


The film has big names in Hollywood, including Martin Scorsese, Robert De Niro, and Leonardo DiCaprio. It received $200 million in funding from Apple and has received rave reviews that have sparked Oscar predictions.

However, the book “Killers of the Flower Moon” is causing conflicting emotions and perspectives within Native American groups as it tells the story of the targeted murders of Osage Nation members for their valuable oil land during the 1920s.

Devery Jacobs, a Native performer who portrayed Elora in the TV series Reservation Dogs, shared on a social media platform, previously known as Twitter: “As a Native person, watching this film was incredibly painful. It was like reliving the worst acts of violence against my ancestors, only this time it was explicitly depicted on screen. The only moment of relief was during the 30-minute scenes of white men plotting and discussing their violent actions.”

The film explores the relationship between Mollie Kyle (Lily Gladstone), a member of the Osage nation, and Ernest Burkhart (DiCaprio), a first world war veteran who comes to work for his corrupt uncle (De Niro). The screenplay is adapted from David Grann’s 2017 bestselling nonfiction book of the same title by Scorsese and Eric Roth.

Martin Scorsese, who is 80 years old, helmed the bold 206-minute epic and has stated that the initial screenplay, which focused on white FBI agents investigating the Osage murders, was revised to reflect a narrative more aligned with the perspective of the Osage Nation. The filming took place in Oklahoma and featured a cast of Osage and other Indigenous actors. The Osage people were intricately involved in all aspects of production, including costume design, set design, and the portrayal of their customs and language.

However, Native American individuals interviewed by the Guardian provide a multifaceted range of reactions to Killers of the Flower Moon, simultaneously applauding and scrutinizing the film. They commend its attempt to bring attention to Osage history through the use of Indigenous actors in significant roles, but also raise concerns about its excessive violence and absence of historical background, prioritization of white characters, and lack of an Indigenous screenwriter or director.

Elizabeth Rule, an assistant professor at American University in Washington and a member of the Chickasaw Nation, expresses that as a Native viewer, it was challenging for her to watch the film. She agrees with the common criticism that this was a prominent issue and shares that it also resonated with her own personal experience.

However difficult it may be to observe, it is crucial to bear witness to these tragic narratives. It is important to keep in mind that these are accurate portrayals of deliberate and brutal killings of Indigenous individuals. Therefore, it is natural to feel outraged and unsettled when exposed to such violent scenes, particularly because they are based on real events.

“I recognize the film’s significance in bringing attention to the ongoing violence experienced by our communities, particularly for those who are not of Native descent.”

The performance of Indigenous actor Gladstone in Killers of the Flower Moon has been praised as a standout. However, some critics feel that her character is not as well-developed or 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 website Root posed the question, “Could Killers of the Flower Moon be considered the Green Book for the Indigenous Community?” This is a comparison to the 2018 Academy Award-winning film that was criticized for including a “magical negro” character whose role was solely to benefit the white main character.

According to Rule, the author of “Indigenous DC: Native Peoples and the Nation’s Capital,” the focus of the storytelling should prioritize the perspectives of Indigenous characters. Additionally, Rule hopes that audiences understand that the violence depicted in the story was not solely driven by 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 widespread among hundreds of tribes throughout the United States. This issue did not originate or conclude in the 1920s, but rather it began with the colonization of this land and persists to this day.

However, Rule also expresses appreciation for the Native American individuals involved in the making of the film, such as Lily Gladstone, Tantoo Cardinal, Tatanka Means, and Robbie Robertson. These individuals were entrusted with the important task of portraying the lives and community of Indigenous people, who were specifically targeted for violence due to their identity.

“I would like to express my gratitude and deep appreciation to the Osage community and family, whose story this is. It takes immense courage, strength, and even personal sacrifice to share this painful narrative, which continues to impact their lives today, with millions of viewers.”

Mary Kathryn Nagle, a lawyer, playwright, and screenwriter from Oklahoma who belongs to the Cherokee nation, shares the same sentiment. She is familiar with many of the actors and states, “The performances in this film are truly exceptional. It has brought attention to an issue within the American public that was not widely known before, and that is incredibly significant.”

Nagle believes that the script could have provided more development and autonomy for Mollie Burkhart’s character. While Martin Scorsese aimed to reflect white American society through the main characters played by Robert De Niro and Leonardo DiCaprio, Nagle would have preferred to see more of Molly’s personal growth instead of solely reacting to the tragic events. Nagle suggests that there were important actions and decisions made by Molly behind the scenes that could have been shown on screen.

Leonardo DiCaprio and Lily Gladstone in Killers of the Flower Moon

Nagle, playwright of Manahatta which will premiere at the Public Theater in New York later this month, states: “I am confident that Martin Scorsese made every effort to collaborate with the Osage community and accurately depict their story.”

“I believe that if a Native person had been in charge, the portrayal of the lead Native character would have had more of a character development arc. This is not a criticism of Lily’s acting, as she did a phenomenal job. However, when Native writers tell these stories, they tend to add more complexity and depth to their Native characters.”

The author ends on a positive tone, stating that change in Hollywood takes time. They encourage Native audience members to consider what kind of stories they would like to see about their culture. They also suggest celebrating and appreciating this film, as it breaks away from stereotypes and was made with the involvement of the community.

While we can certainly analyze the lack of character development for the main Osage character compared to her white counterparts, it is also worth noting that the film avoids many common tropes and stereotypes typically seen in this genre. The Osage people are portrayed beautifully and authentically, a refreshing departure from the usual representations offered by Hollywood. This is definitely something to be praised.

Robert Warrior, an Osage nation member and a professor at the University of Kansas specializing in American literature and culture, contends that Killers of the Flower Moon fails to adequately address the role of federal government policies in the displacement of Native Americans. One example of this is the pressure placed on the Osage to divide their reservation into smaller allotments.

In the 1920s, there was a surge of oil drilling that led to the Osage community becoming incredibly wealthy. However, their ability to pass on their ownership shares, known as “headrights,” to anyone allowed non-Osage individuals to become involved. This attracted white individuals who acted as “guardians” with hidden agendas. This setting ultimately contributed to a string of violent murders.

The Warrior expresses gratitude for the accurate representation of external symbols such as language and clothing of the Osage people. The large number of Osage individuals featured in the film is also noteworthy.

Robert de Niro, Martin Scorsese and Lily Gladstone pose during a photocall in Cannes

I am equally frustrated with the movie and David Grann’s book because they fail to explain the larger context behind these murders and many others. This includes the federal policy of allotment, which created a bureaucratic system that allowed non-Osagers or non-Natives to access Native resources. Without addressing this crucial aspect, any attempt to comprehend this specific story falls short of its potential as a Hollywood film.

Dennis McAuliffe, a member of the Osage tribe and writer of The Deaths of Sybil Bolton: Oil, Greed, and Murder on the Osage Reservation, believes that additional information is crucial. He poses these questions: “Was there any mention in the film of headrights? Was there any explanation of allotment? Was there any discussion of how Osages were assigned guardians and how those guardians were able to embezzle millions of dollars from them? None.”

The depiction of the guardians as killers in the story was based on real events, however, there is no clear explanation given for how this came to be. The role and responsibility of the US Congress in passing the 1906 Osage Allotment Act, which established the system of headrights and guardianship, is not addressed in the story. While I cannot speak to the accuracy of the portrayal of Native Americans, it is a historically inaccurate portrayal of the events and systems that led to the tragic murders.

McAuliffe acknowledges that the contents of his and Grann’s books were heavily influenced by information from FBI files. If the story were to be written by someone who had not consulted these files, such as Native writers, directors, or producers, the narrative would be vastly different.

“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.”


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