Scorsese Film May Set New Precedent For Indigenous Representation

The great filmmaker’s latest project is a brutal true crime story about a series of murders on the Osage reservation in Oklahoma. Keep reading to learn more about how this harrowing story was adapted into an epic film.

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Screen still from Killers of the Flower Moon with Leonardo DiCaprio and Lily Gladstone getting out of an old car

Martin Scorsese’s highly anticipated film Killers of the Flower Moon is based on the devastating true story of the Osage Murders, a series of horrific crimes carried out by white settlers in a conspiratorial attempt to acquire wealth from members of the Osage Nation. The movie is adapted from David Grann’s 2017 nonfiction bestseller of the same title. However, Scorsese was inspired to make a few adjustments to his source material and initial script after a meeting with the Osage Nation inspired him to shift the film’s focus to the people at the heart of the story.

The True Story of the Osage Reign of Terror

The Osage Nation is a Midwestern Native American tribe of the Great Plains who refer to themselves as Ni-U-Kon-Ska, or “People of the Middle Waters.” For thousands of years, they lived on a broad stretch of land between the three great rivers — the Missouri, the Mississippi, and the Arkansas — until the early 19th century, when the U.S. government enforced a series of relocations that moved the Osage people to northern Oklahoma by the 1870s. The Osage were allowed to purchase the land, which, in 1907, was discovered to be filled with valuable oil reserves. The money that the Osage Nation acquired from oil, in addition to the wealth they had accumulated from leasing their grazing lands, quickly made them the “richest community in the world.” The two short decades that followed the discovery of oil on Osage land resulted in more profit than “all of the American gold rushes combined.”

Tribal allotments had been established upon moving to Oklahoma, which ensured that the land would remain within the members of the Osage Nation and that all rights for resources would be evenly divided and owned collectively by the community. When the money from the oil reserves began pouring in, each member of the Osage Nation was given an equal share known as a “headright.” However, the U.S. government quickly put guardianship laws into place — allegedly to help the Osage maintain their income — which resulted in many full-blooded members of the Osage Nation being deemed as “incompetent” and paired with a guardian to manage their finances.

Black & white photograph of Mollie Burkhart and her sisters Rita, Anna, and Minnie

Mollie Kyle was a member of the Osage Nation who possessed a “headright” alongside each member of her family — including her mother and three sisters, Anna, Reta, and Minnie — that gave them equal shares of the oil wealth. In 1917, she married Ernest Burkhart, and together they had three children: Elizabeth, James, and Anna. Ernest was a white World War I veteran from Texas who traveled to Fairfax, Oklahoma, to live and work with his uncle William Hale — a wealthy and influential cattleman. Although Hale presented himself as a friend to the Osage Nation, he orchestrated a plot to murder Osages to inherit their headrights, and he recruited his nephews Ernest and Byron for help.

This conspiracy resulted in what is known by the Osage as the “Reign of Terror,” a period in the early 1920s in which more than 60 members of the Osage Nation were mysteriously murdered, including several members of Mollie Kyle’s family. In response to the Osage Nation’s outcry for help, the newly-formed Bureau of Investigation (later renamed the Federal Bureau of Investigation) sent several investigators, including Tom White, a former Texas Ranger, who uncovered Hale’s plot in what became the FBI’s first significant case.

David Grann’s Bestselling Book Raises Awareness About the Osage Murders

In 2012, magazine journalist David Grann began researching the Osage Murders after visiting the Osage Nation Museum in Pawhuska, Oklahoma. While at the museum, he was struck by a panoramic photograph that appeared to have a section removed. After asking museum director Kathryn Red Corn about the missing panel, Grann learned that the photograph previously included an image of William Hale, whom Red Corn called “the devil.”

It was a moment that deeply impacted Grann, who later said that he is “haunted” by the idea that “the Osage have removed it not to forget what had happened, but because they can’t forget.” After Grann visited the museum, he began a five-year research project that involved searching through archives and interviewing members of the Osage Nation and descendants of those affected by the Reign of Terror.

Book cover of Killers of the Flower Moon by David Grann with a red sky and sun behind clouds

In 2017, Grann published Killers of the Flower Moon, which told the true story of the Osage Murders in the style of a classic murder mystery. The book is divided into three sections, with the first centering on Mollie and her family, the second on the federal investigation led by Tom White, and the third focused on how the investigation fell short of uncovering the complete truth of how deeply the Osage Nation was impacted by the Reign of Terror.

Scorsese’s Adaptation Places the Focus on the Osage Nation

While the initial script for Martin Scorsese’s film adaptation of Grann’s book focused heavily on the FBI investigation, the director quickly changed course after a meeting with the Osage Nation encouraged him to shift the focus of the film. Scorsese told TIME, “I was taking the approach from the outside in, which concerned me.” The updated story of Killers of the Flower Moon centers on the family of Mollie Burkhart (Lily Gladstone) and the complex relationship between Mollie and her husband Ernest (Leonardo DiCaprio).

The film’s production team took great lengths to consult with the Osage Nation to ensure that their culture and history were accurately depicted. Lead costume designer Jacqueline West worked closely with Osage costume consultant Julie O’Keefe, and together they assembled a team of Osage artists and designers to ensure the accuracy of the costumes. In addition, several of the actors, including Gladstone, DiCaprio, and Robert De Niro, learned the Osage language for the film.

Mollie Burkhart and her sisters eating on a blanket on the ground holding fans and dressed in fancy clothing

Grann has been incredibly supportive and even enthusiastic about Scorsese’s deviations from the book. He recently told The Independent, “To me, Mollie Burkhart was always the heart and soul of the book.” The writer mentioned that, above all else, he is thrilled that the movie is “faithful to history.”

By placing Mollie and Ernest’s relationship at the heart of the story, Scorsese’s film honors the real people who were deeply and irrevocably impacted by the Osage Murders. It also draws viewers to contemplate the corrupt system that made the conspiracy possible. At a recent press conference, Scorsese stated, “What I wanted to capture, ultimately, was the very nature of the virus or the cancer that creates this sense of a kind of easygoing genocide.”

Despite the filmmaker’s attentive approach to Osage representation in Killers of the Flower Moon, it is also important to acknowledge the limited viewpoint of anyone who attempts to tell this horrific story from outside of the Osage Nation. After viewing the film, a few Osage consultants have voiced complex feelings, including language consultant Christopher Cote, who recently said that he thought Scorsese “did a great job representing our people” but admitted that he was disappointed that “this history is being told almost from the perspective of Ernest Burkhart” rather than Mollie. Chad Renfro, a consulting producer and the Osage tribe’s ambassador for the film, expressed that he hopes Killers of the Flower Moon can set a new industry standard for Indigenous representation in cinema. Renfro told CNN, “It is setting the bar really high for things like this going forward…I hope that it will encourage Hollywood and anybody who’s considering making films about other cultures, period, to do the same.”

Killers of the Flower Moon arrives in theaters October 20 ahead of streaming on Apple+.

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