Kiran Emrich reviews the new Martin Scorsese film about a little know series of murders that the Osage Nation suffered in the early part of the last century. While spotlighting these horrible events, the film ultimately fails to make clear the broader connections to the structural racism embedded with capitalism. In this regard it is part of a long tradition of well-intentioned Hollywood movies on racism in the US.
The stunning new film from veteran director Martin Scorsese tells some of the story of the horrific murders within the Osage Nation in Oklahoma between 1918-31. These little-known events are often left out of the story of Native American history but show how colonialism racism and capitalism are intertwined and have characterised the experience of Native Americans since the arrival of Europeans.
The Osage people were originally from the Ohio area but had been forced west to Kansas by the arrival of the Europeans and subsequent wars. Like many other tribes, the Osage were then displaced by the US government to Oklahoma, then known as Indian Territory, in the 19th century. Indian Territory was seen as empty and barren, with little arable land, it was considered worthless with little settlement at the time by those of European descent. The Osage were able to purchase an area of land, that became what is now Osage County, the largest county in modern Oklahoma.
In the early 20th century oil was discovered in Osage County and with the Osage people retaining ownership of the land many of them became hugely wealthy. Early on the film includes a montage of scenes showing Osage people enjoying their new found wealth with luxurious homes, fancy clothing and new modern inventions such as cars and airplanes in an important counter narrative to the usual Hollywood depiction of Native Americans as primitive or noble savages. This is despite federal law that meant that their money was governed by white administrators.
However, this wealth also attracted a dark side as people moved in to try and grab some of that wealth for themselves. While many found work providing goods and services to the Osage, others resorted to manipulation, corruption and murder resulting in a series of murders and unexplained deaths of Osage people. While the film focuses on the murders of members of the Kyle family, it is thought that the number of murders during this period could have been well over a hundred.
The Kyle family become particularly wealthy thanks to the oil, and their wealth draws the attention of the rich and powerful William Hale, a local white rancher, played in the film by Robert DeNiro. Hale is hugely popular and influential in the area due to his philanthropy and friendly relations with the Osage people. When his nephew Ernest Burkhart, played by Leonardo DiCaprio returns from Europe where he served in the American army during World War I, Hale has plans for Ernest to work his way into the lives of the Kyle family.
Starting out as a taxi driver, Ernest quickly meets Mollie Kyle, played by Native American actress Lily Gladstone, who becomes his main passenger. Under orders from his uncle, Ernest tries to engage Mollie in conversation, eventually breaking through her quiet, dignified exterior. The film details their growing relationship which eventually leads to marriage. Even as their relationship is developing though, Mollie is forced to deal with a number of deaths of close family members.
Continued Land Dispossession
The most shocking scenes of the film show the gruesome aftermaths of the murders of Mollie’s sisters, Anna and Rita. With her parents and siblings all dead, Mollie is now the sole owner of her family’s land rights, which upon her death would thus transfer to Ernest.
With no investigation from the local sheriffs who are seemingly in cahoots with the murderers, Mollie and Osage leaders attempt to gain help from federal agencies in Washington. Despite the mounting evidence of murders, they are initially ignored as federal government has little interest in what happens to Native Americans in rural Oklahoma. Finally, agents from the Bureau of Investigation (BOI, forerunner of the FBI) are sent to Osage County to investigate. Much of the second half of the film details the BOI investigation which is slowed by intransigence and obstructions by Hale, Burkhart and their accomplices.
With Ernest and William eventually arrested the film focuses on their trial which takes some twists and turns, including a strong cameo from Brendan Fraser as Hale’s lawyer. The film ends with Scorsese making an appearance on screen to make clear his view on the case. It is a touch very reminiscent of Spike Lee in his more righteous films.
The film while presenting a really shocking story is very well made as you would expect from Martin Scorsese. Robert DeNiro is remarkably restrained as William Hale, giving his best performance in decades. Leonardo DiCaprio, employing a permanent scowl goes a bit over the top at times especially towards the end. Lily Gladstone gives a revelatory performance as Mollie, quiet and dignified but full of righteous anger and despair as she realises her family is being killed off. The film also features a large cast of Osage people in various roles and was filmed in Osage County, Oklahoma.
Making the Links – Nearly
The film is to be commended for showing a little-known disgraceful part of American history but it is very subtle in showing these murders as a part of a wider American story. Early on there is a brief reference to the Tulsa massacre, a contemporary event that saw the destruction of a wealthy black neighbourhood in Tulsa, Oklahoma by white racists, including the local police force. Little connection is made to the wider history of Native Americans, instead giving a microcosm and almost encouraging its audience to go out and find out more.
The film works very hard to elicit audience sympathy for Ernest Burkhart, only to pull the rug on that sympathy late in the film as the true extent of his involvement in the murders is slowly revealed. There has been some criticism that the film centres Burkhart and Hale as its main characters and not the Osage people. Indeed, during production the script underwent changes, following consultations with the Osage community, in order to strengthen the part of the Osage in the film. Scorsese though, who has always revelled in making films centred on villains, is probably not the right director to make a film centred on the Osage people despite his obvious sympathy for them.
We’ve Been Here Before
Such criticisms are not new in Hollywood movies. For example, Alan Parker was criticised for the 1988 film Mississippi Burning. That film told the story of the FBI investigation into the murder of civil rights organisers in 1964. Despite its good intentions, Mississippi Burning focused on what the politics of race meant to white people with most of the black characters portrayed as passive.
The other main criticism has focused on the film’s length, at three and a half hours long, it is one of the longest cinematic releases in recent years. English film critic Mark Kermode argues that the film feels as if it was designed for online streaming where its length wouldn’t be an issue. Having been partly funded and produced by Apple, that is certainly a possibility. However, the film is so detailed that it didn’t feel too long with in particular, the numerous scenes of Osage life and culture providing important context.Overall, Killers of the Flower Moon is a powerful depiction of a terrible event in American history that points obliquely towards the broader history of colonialism, racism and capitalist greed in the America