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Indigenous community critiques representation in "Killers of the Flower Moon"

Photos courtesy of Adobe Stock.

Martin Scorsese tells an uncensored story of the greed-fueled history of violence against the Indigenous people of the Osage Nation in his newest epic drama, “Killers of the Flower Moon.”

Scorsese is testing audiences’ devotion to cinema with the film’s runtime, which is almost 3.5 hours.

Notorious for his lengthy and ponderous films, Scorsese’s work might be best enjoyed in theaters, but his hard-to-watch dramas aren’t encouraging audiences to flock to AMC Theatres and Regal Cinemas like the “Barbie” frenzy of the summer.

Despite its runtime and somber tone, “Killers of the Flower Moon” is a beautifully constructed film that does not shy from depicting the scope of terror brought on the Osage people in the 1920s. 

The Osage were forcibly relocated to a reservation in Oklahoma by the U.S. government in the mid-1800s and made a fortune after finding oil on their land. By the early 20th century, the Osage people were rich, contradicting harmful stereotypes against Indigenous wealth at the time.

The film follows the true story of Ernest Burkhart, portrayed by Leonardo DiCaprio, and his wealthy uncle, played by Robert De Niro. After serving in World War I, Ernest moves to Osage country, where his uncle evidently holds serious power and influence. 

His uncle urges Ernest to marry an Osage woman, suggesting the union would be “a smart investment,” as a white husband would gain control of his Indigenous wife’s headright money, which is a portion of funds from oil mining.

Ernest marries Mollie, a stoic and enticing Osage woman, beautifully portrayed by actress Lily Gladstone, and quietly schemes with his uncle to garner the money belonging to Mollie and her family. 

Soon, a wave of Osage people, including Mollie’s sisters, die under mysterious circumstances, but the white town doctors and sheriff make little effort to investigate. 

It would be inaccurate to call “Killers of the Flower Moon” a movie about Indigenous people. 

Rather, the film is about white men’s exploitation of Indigenous people, and the narrative reduces the Osage people to victims and side characters. So much of the film revolves around Ernest and the circle of white criminals willing to do anything for a piece of the Osage wealth.

Though far from perfect, the film brings a horrifying yet lesser-known story of violence against Indigenous people, both physical and administrative, to a vast audience. 

It would be incomplete to review a movie that tells such an important Native American story without consulting UNC’s own Native community.

Marissa Carmi, the associate director of the American Indian Center at UNC and a citizen of the Oneida Nation of Wisconsin, said the film was groundbreaking for consulting the Osage Nation during production. However, she added that the film falls short on telling the story from a Native perspective.

Emily McDonnell, a citizen of the Navajo Nation and a Ph.D. candidate specializing in American Indian and Indigenous studies, said she grew up where many of John Wayne's Western movies were filmed, which included culturally insensitive depictions of Native people. 

McDonnell said that Hollywood’s failure to include Native people in the telling of their own stories has largely shaped the way Indigenous people are viewed in popular culture, which includes the inaccurate generalization that tribes exist as a monolith. 

“Native people are generally portrayed historically, and that also contributes to the narrative that Native people are either no longer existent or that we're not modern people,” she said.

AJ Hunt, a member of the Lumbee Tribe and administrative support associate at the American Indian Center, was excited to be able to identify with something on the big screen but said in an email he is tired of Indigenous people being represented only through tragedy.

“It doesn't tell a different story or tell a story differently,” Daniel Cobb, coordinator of the American Indian and Indigenous Studies program at UNC, said. “It centers non-Indigenous people. The story is about Osage, but it's not an Osage story in a fundamental sense.”

Cobb said the film was grim and difficult to watch, which he felt was done intentionally to mirror the experience of the Osage. 

However, he added that the film’s ending made the Osage people seem like a thing of the past.

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“You would think that story ended there, that the Osage people experienced mass murder, corruption, greed and crumbled,” Cobb said. “But that is the opposite. The Osage people persevered, overcame and are thriving today.”

Carmi said she hopes the film will serve as a starting point to encourage non-Native people to keep learning about Native history.

“That’s the most you can ask for for something like this, where we get that visibility but people continue to want to stay connected, they want to learn more,” Carmi said.


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