In 1920, the Osage Nation of Oklahoma became the richest nation of people per capita in the world when valuable oil deposits were discovered on their land. And for the six years afterward, Osage County was terrorized by a string of more than 60 mysterious or unsolved murders of Osage people who stood to benefit from these mineral lease royalties.
The serial killings became known as the “Reign of Terror,” prompting the involvement of the precursor to the FBI, the U.S. Bureau of Investigation. Author and journalist David Grann immortalized this tragic period of unjustified crimes in his 2017 book Killers of the Flower Moon. Martin Scorsese’s film adaptation, which was filmed on location in Oklahoma, is set to release in May 2023.
But this isn’t just a third-party depiction of the Osage Nation. It’s a collaboration between the production company and the Osage citizens, unlike many Hollywood depictions of Native American peoples that have come before it.
The Need For A Sensitive Approach
Since Scorsese and leading actor Leonardo DiCaprio first announced plans for the film in 2017, the potential for backlash has been immense. Not only does this film depict a particularly heinous moment in American history, but it also centers on a community this country has violently marginalized since its founding.
Consequently, many were initially skeptical of a major Hollywood film production barging into Osage County, Oklahoma, to tell a sensationalized version of the story. However, reports from Osage citizens and indigenous actors involved in the film reveal that Scorsese took great care to approach the film with reverence and humility.
The film industry has a sordid history of dehumanizing, belittling, or otherwise exploiting Native American people and their cultures, which explains why there were plenty of preconceptions stacked against Scorsese and DiCaprio’s intentions. And while we obviously can’t speak to the unreleased film’s content, its production practices paint a picture of genuine collaboration with and respect for the Osage community.
Letting The World Inform The Work
Lily Gladstone, who is of Blackfeet and Nez Perce descent, plays Mollie Burkhart, an Osage woman whose family fell victim to the Reign of Terror. In a recent interview with Variety, Gladstone said Scorsese “worked closely with the real-life Osage Nation to ensure his movie would properly represent the community.”
“The work is better when you let the world inform the work,” she said. “It’s a different movie than the one [Scorsese] walked in to make almost entirely because of what the community had to say.”
Osage News reported that this synchronicity had existed since the film’s conception. In 2019, Scorsese and his production team met with the Osage Nation’s Principal Chief, Geoffrey Standing Bear. Standing Bear served as the film’s cultural consultant, ensuring proper, historically accurate depictions of the Osage Nation.
The film utilized Osage and other indigenous citizens in its cast, local artisans in its costume department, Osage citizens to cook food for the film’s scenes, and consultants from the Osage Language Department and Wahzhazhe Cultural Center. On the first day of filming, members of the Osage Nation and more than 100 cast and crew members gathered for a blessing led by Grayhorse Head Committeeman Archie Mason.
Leading A More Inclusive Path
The Killers production team’s decision to film on location forced the Osage Nation to once again confront an incredibly difficult time. The Reign of Terror resulted in the deaths of at least 5% of the Osage Nation, and 50% lost all their wealth. Thus, it’s unsurprising that the local community’s opinions on the film are divisive.
Still, the overwhelming response seems to be positive. “[Scorsese] struck me and most of the [Osage] people as a very sincere person who wants to get this right and do right by us,” Danette Daniels, the Osage owner of Pawhuska’s Water Bird Gallery, told The Oklahoman. “There are other Osages that are very skeptical … but at least we’ve had input into the process.”
Indeed, Killers of the Flower Moon appears to be taking a much-needed turn away from Hollywood’s traditional treatment of Native American communities. While they deserve to have their story told, indigenous people also deserve to be the ones to tell it. And hopefully, Scorsese’s example will lead Hollywood down a more inclusive path where we celebrate and uplift marginalized communities, not exploit them further for ratings.