History Lives in the Present
This article appeared in the October 26, 2023 edition of The Film Comment Letter, our free weekly newsletter featuring original film criticism and writing. Sign up for the Letter here. Read and listen to all of our coverage NYFF61 here.
A film is not just what’s on screen. To me, the significance of Martin Scorsese’s Killers of the Flower Moon was cemented before its release. No matter what the finished film looked like, its production was important to the Osage Nation leaders who proactively sought to collaborate in its making and the Osage people in the cast and crew. The movie aids Osage language revitalization efforts, and its undertaking is a key moment in the development of an Oklahoma film industry that could benefit Native artists in the state. Killers also brings attention to a history largely unknown to the general public at a time when teaching such history is a fraught endeavor: a 2021 Oklahoma law restricting classroom discussions on race and gender has, for instance, left educators uncertain if they can teach David Grann’s best-selling nonfiction book about the Osage murders of 1921-26 (described by contemporary newspapers as the “Reign of Terror”), on which the film is based. Scorsese has also set an example for collaborating with a Native community: beyond employing Osage consultants, he forged a relationship with Osage leaders that suggests a remarkable level of representational accountability. Collaboration is valuable and important—though I hope it is not the limit of Hollywood’s vision of Native Americans in cinema.
The Reign of Terror saw entire generations of Osage people killed by non-Natives for their wealth after oil was discovered on Osage land in Oklahoma—at least 60 victims are confirmed, though hundreds are suspected to have been murdered. Killers is about Ernest Burkhart (Leonardo DiCaprio), a WW1 veteran who becomes involved in a plot masterminded by his uncle, William Hale (Robert De Niro), to marry an Osage woman, Mollie Kyle (Lily Gladstone), and murder her family members one by one to obtain their headrights. When local authorities are uninterested in investigating these deaths, Mollie and Osage leaders petition for help from the federal government, which leads to an inquiry by the Bureau of Investigation (a precursor to the FBI).
Scorsese’s meetings with the Osage community during the film’s preproduction led to substantial revisions: the focus of the script was shifted from the BOI investigation to the relationship between Mollie and Ernest, as well as the lives and cultural practices of the Osage people. There are also a number of specific references in the film that suggest significant research and Native input and will be appreciated by Native viewers: in one scene, the white and black uniforms of the Hominy Indians—the all-Native football team located in the Osage Nation who famously beat the New York Giants in 1927—are visible in the background; in another, we see Osage mothers march in memory of the sons they lost to the First World War, a tribute to the estimated 25 percent of Native American men who fought in the war.
De Niro’s Hale presents himself as a benefactor to the Osage community, while at the same time exploiting and conspiring to kill them. Hale is not a unique personage; some of the worst events in Native American history were caused by so-called “friends of the Indian,” including the disastrous policy of Allotment, beginning with the General Allotment Act (passed in 1887), which serves as context for this film. Put briefly, in the late 19th century, prominent activists and political figures believed that the difficulties facing Native populations were caused by their inability to assimilate into the American economic system. The solution, they decided, was private property. Communally held tribal lands were broken up into individual parcels, with the goal of fragmenting Native communities, and allotted to tribal members; the remaining surplus land became open to settlement. Despite the altruistic language used to justify the Act, its intended outcome was dispossession: by the end of the Allotment Era in 1934, tribes had lost two-thirds of the land they had held in 1887. The Osage Nation, however, had some leverage. Unlike other tribes, they had purchased their own reservation land, which meant that they could negotiate holding onto its mineral rights. Those are precisely the headrights that Osage citizens were murdered for during the Reign of Terror.
A film can have multiple goals, and while Scorsese has stated that he wants to bring attention to Osage history, Killers is also a continuation of his career-long interest in dissecting evil. The movie’s primary focus is on the perpetrators of a series of organized, violent crimes. Given the contemporary epidemic of violence against Native women and the already extensive archive of Indigenous death on screen, I was skeptical about how Scorsese would depict these crimes. (In a recent interview with The Irish Times, the filmmaker notes that this was a major concern expressed by Osage Principal Chief Geoffrey Standing Bear.) The final product may be difficult to watch for Native viewers for whom settler violence is lived experience or recent family history, but Scorsese’s method significantly intervenes in the cinematic canon. From the earliest Hollywood movies, Native death has been romanticized and portrayed as inevitable: an evolutionary given or a necessary tragedy in the progression of Euro-American civilization. Hale assumes such inevitability, justifying his crimes against the Osage by saying to Ernest, “They’re gonna pass on.” In Killers, violence is presented matter-of-factly, but Scorsese also makes explicit the injustices obscured by such euphemisms. Here, the violence against Native people is not treated ambivalently or in service of “progress,” but as the work of inept con men and predators. In adopting this perspective, the film shows us that grand narratives about American settler colonization are thin justifications for greed.
Killers is not only about historical violence, but also about the violence of omitting history, especially in the media. In the film’s epilogue, Scorsese takes one of the biggest creative risks of his career, appearing as the announcer of a radio show where he reads Mollie’s obituary. It’s noteworthy that the radio program is presented as an imperfect retelling of history, with a white actor trying to sound “Indian” and relaying a story with pointed gaps in knowledge. By casting himself as the narrator, Scorsese is perhaps acknowledging his own position as a non-Native outsider presenting this account.
This is why Gladstone’s performance as Mollie is the key to Killers of the Flower Moon. There are other notable Indigenous performances—Cara Jade Myers as Mollie’s sister Anna and William Belleau as her friend and first husband Henry are standouts—but Gladstone provides the most prominent and consistent Indigenous presence in the film (along with the late Robbie Robertson, whose bluesy, guitar-driven score serves as its heartbeat). This is a high-profile example of the burden of representation: Gladstone’s portrayal of Mollie not only stands in for the Osage women who suffered during the Reign of Terror, but also contends with more than a century of cinematic depictions of Native women and the suffering they’ve experienced at the hands of white men. Mollie is guarded and strategically quiet in her encounters with white people, which means that Gladstone is required to communicate a great deal with just her face and body language. When, at the end of the film, Mollie leaves Ernest after he tells one final lie, Gladstone silently conveys indignation, disappointment, and resolve, acting as the story’s moral conscience.
Near the beginning of the film, Mollie narrates the mysterious deaths of several Osage women, and notes how in each instance there was no investigation. Two days after watching Killers of the Flower Moon, I attended the Indigenous Peoples of the Americas Parade in New York City. Several participants held banners and chanted to bring attention to the epidemic of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women, and at one point along the route, they passed an electronic billboard that flashed the poster for Scorsese’s film. That image was a reminder to me that history lives in the present for Indigenous people; the Osage Reign of Terror and the ongoing MMIW crisis are part of the same legacy of settler-colonial policies.
The ending of the film moves from the artificiality of the radio show into a documentary mode, with an overhead shot of present-day Osage people dancing counterclockwise around a drum. Portraying cultural continuity is crucial, and this image—perhaps the most important scene in the film—refutes a long history of Native American representations, both sympathetic and racist, that have routinely denied Indigenous peoples their present and their futurity. Scorsese writes in his director’s statement that he hopes he has made something that the Osage community “can see and absorb and accept as an offering.” That suggests the work is intended to be useful. It will be interesting to see how Indigenous people make use of this film and its cultural moment for their own purposes, continuing a long history of negotiating with American media.
Jacob Floyd is an assistant professor in the Martin Scorsese Department of Cinema Studies at NYU. He is an enrolled citizen of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation and is also of Cherokee descent.