After two years of anticipation, I saw Killers of the Flower Moon with Osage friends in Tulsa. Across the nation, Osages are gathering to see the film and sharing reactions on social media. Afterwards, we had dinner and talked.
“Rate the film from 1-10,” someone asked. “What do you give it?” The group ranged from teens to elders. The ratings ranged up and down the scale—from 5 to 9. I was relieved to have my reaction reflected. We talked about scenes left out, details. Later, I also felt both let down and relieved of the anticipation, the hype and relentless promotion.
As Osages we’ve watched the film being made from the set, or in town, or across the country with investment and with trepidation. We’ve watched via reports from community members and survivors’ descendants.
We wondered if this would be more than another Hollywood Indian movie laden with the familiar tropes. The consultants were optimistic, and filmmakers insisted they understood our concerns. We waited.
The film has many strengths. I loved the casting of the misfit criminals, the collection of FBI men, Lily Gladstone. The conversations between the sisters, which were too few. Loved seeing a summary of the many details we’ve heard from those days, the cemetery, the towns where we live on screen. Best of course, glimpses of friends and family in parade scenes, buying a car, gossiping, and the Osage people, our language, our ways.
There’s a lot in the film for Osages to love. The film succeeds in some admirable ways. I enjoyed looking at the details of clothing, as I’ve done on a friend’s patio, pouring over old photo albums considering pins and shirt details. A strength of the film is the verisimilitude to the Osage of the 1920s. The hero in the film is the Osage language. It’s spoken by our Osage actors and extras, and by Lily Gladstone, Leonardo DiCaprio and especially Robert De Niro. It’s a joy to understand some of the words, the flow.
The moral question, suspense about what motivates Ernest Burkhart is diminished by the suggestion that he is, as William Hale’s attorney says, “dumb.” Ernest is amiable and feckless; he was a cook in the infantry. The tension about whether he’ll stop poisoning his wife, or what he feels about his wife is not compelling. Part of what made William Hale so despicable was his hypocrisy with the Osage. Here, De Niro plays a genial devil, the breadth of his betrayals barely surfaced.
The gratuitous gore present in David Grann’s book carries forward to the film, though I had understood Scorsese agreed to deemphasize the Native woman as victim trope. The victims are our relatives. The Osage characters have more depth than in the past, but they remain a backdrop.
I found myself watching the slow demise of the Burkart family and wondering when intermission was, because then the film would deepen, the suspense would gather and spiral into the messy, shenanigans of the local and state politics the trial set in motion. But it did not. I made assumptions about the trajectory of the film from the scores of clips and stills that have been teased. In fact, by the time I watched the movie, it felt like an assemblage of those clips.
Maybe knowing the story, as I do, as many Osages do, made this felt reductive. But I wasn’t bored reading Dennis McAuliffe’s book The Deaths of Sybil Bolton, nor the play adapted from it, nor Charles Red Corns’ A Pipe for February.
The film would have been enriched by showing an intact Osage community struggling with this blight. With Chief Bonnicastle (Yancey Red Corn), spiritual leader (Talee Redcorn), and Chief Paul Red Eagle (Everett Waller) struggling to find the best thing to do and feeling the pain of the losses. With Molly’s family life and the tensions of her place in community. It could have been magnificent.
I love seeing our Osage people brought to life in film, the range of our life together. The film is a gloss over Osage history with archival film and beautiful costume and set design, showing the ways Osages used their wealth, while maintaining their culture in a chaotic oil boom reality.
It feels disloyal to my Osage friends who poured themselves into this project, to suggest it could be different and better. Osages didn’t fail the project, Hollywood failed us.
Chris Côté went viral for describing how he reacted to the film. Among other things, he said, “this film was not made for an Osage audience.” I’m looking for a time when Hollywood trusts mainstream audiences to have empathy for characters in a community beyond their own. That failure of imagination cost us a film centering Osages and a rich portrayal of Osage people and community life within the web of the political and financial entanglements that continue to exist.