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REVIEW: ‘Killers of the Flower Moon’ and the strength of Indigenous women

If you should see this film, remember that the Osage people are not relics, we are resilient and we are Wahzhazhe Always

CANNES, France – The beginning scene of Martin Scorsese’s “Killers of the Flower Moon” is remarkable.

Warning, spoilers ahead.

Taken verbatim from the book, “A Pipe for February,” by the late Osage author Charles Red Corn, the film opens as the Osage people have decided to give up their old ways, their religion, and to bury their ceremonial pipe as they embrace a new way of life in the white man’s world.  

The scene is heartbreaking, but beautiful filmmaking. The Nonhonzhinga (medicine man), played by Talee Redcorn, prays in Osage as two women, Margaret Sisk and Moira RedCorn, sit behind him crying. The scene is a precursor of what comes next.

The film then explodes into the Roaring ’20s. The discovery of oil on Osage lands, the wealth that makes Osages the richest people per capita in the world, and unsolved Osage murders go uninvestigated while their oil money is left to their killers and henchmen.

Fresh out of the war and right off the train steps Ernest Burkhart, played by Leonardo DiCaprio. He’s picked up by Henry Roan, played by William Belleau, and taken to see his domineering uncle William Hale, played by Robert De Niro. Hale prefers his nephew call him “King” and Ernest bows his head in servitude. It’s clear from the start that Ernest is what Osages call Waux.pah.thi^, meaning pitiful.

While the opening scene of the film may be verbatim from “A Pipe for February,” the film Scorsese has made is definitely not a simple adaptation of Grann’s book, but an adaptation that’s magnified.

Mollie and Ernest Burkhart

The film is told from the points of view of Mollie and Ernest Burkhart, as if the viewer is a fly on the wall in their lives. Mollie is a full blood Osage woman from Grayhorse with three sisters and a mother when she meets and falls in love with Ernest, her handsome taxi driver.

Mollie is played by the incomparable Lily Gladstone. She steals every scene she’s in. Her presence, her depth, her control, the nuances she brings to the role, she’s brilliant. In person, she’s as kind as she is beautiful. She deserves every accolade she receives. If you’re wondering if you should go see this film, at least go see it for Gladstone’s performance.

“It isn’t who did it, but who didn’t do it”

The script was originally 200 pages long, said Scorsese, with the film’s focus primarily on Tom White, the Texas Ranger who leads the investigation into the killings of Osage tribal members. DiCaprio was originally cast as White but as the film changed direction, the role went to Jesse Plemons.

Scorsese said the original script read like a movie he has seen many times before. He decided he wasn’t the director for the job. That is until he visited the Osage community of Grayhorse in 2019. At that fateful dinner, he listened to the community about their experiences and what they knew about Ernest and Mollie Burkhart. It was then he knew the story was more than just a crime drama, it was about complicity.

“That night was the one. That’s what did it, when they [Grayhorse community] got up and spoke, all of them. I think Brandy Lemon got up and she spoke and talked about Ernest and Mollie and I realized, because I was wondering, why this guy had done this,” Scorsese said.

“And how far was he complicit? As a weak man, let’s say, did he feel ‘Well, I’ll just do it this one time. It’s going to go away, they’re not gonna ask me to do it anymore or ask again. They tell him that, and then they really tell him, and he’s just scared. I’m not making excuses for him … but how far was he complicit?

Scorsese said as their research continued and they delved further and further in, one thing became clear: It wasn’t who did it, but who didn’t do it.

“Do we have the strength if we were so tested in our lives to resist this kind of living just to be quiet,” he said. “You could take it all the way to the World War in the 1930s and 40s and people who were complicit in subtle ways, and not so subtle we know, but even in very subtle ways and made it out. So, for me, that was interesting.”

Rest assured book fans, all plot points are followed and the end result is the same, but what’s different is Scorsese takes you inside their friendships, their relationships, their families, you begin to see why Mollie could love and trust Ernest, and why Ernest could be conflicted by duty and fear of his uncle and the duty and love of his family.

The film stays with you long after it’s over, making you think about this conversation and that, searching for the moment of betrayal, only to realize it snuck up on you too.

Why this film is important

In a conversation with Gladstone following the premiere, she spoke about why this film is important. Why the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women (MMIW) movement should have begun at colonial contact and how our Indigenous women are still in danger every day.

“I’m struggling to think of another film that had such a strong presence that was so real of Native women, Indigenous women. I love my sisters, the actresses who play my sisters and the love that Mollie had for them, because we spend enough time with them and see them as a family in the story that we feel the impact,” Gladstone said.

Mollie’s sisters, Anna Brown, Reta Smith and Minnie Smith, are all killed for their headright money, as is their mother Lizzie Q, played expertly by Tantoo Cardinal. The sisters are played by Indigenous actresses Cara Jade Myers, JaNae Collins and Jillian Dion. The scenes with the sisters spending time together, the mother and first daughter sequences, all while speaking in perfect Osage language, is very beautiful. Honestly, every scene that showcases Osage language and culture is captivating.

“I can’t think of another story up to this time that has helped an audience fall in love with a Native woman so that people will [care] about all of the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women that we are dealing with now that people don’t look for, except for search parties, families,” Gladstone said.

“People have to put it together on our own because who’s helping us? This is not history, this is modern, this is contemporary and having a chance to not just have this love story to talk about, how did this play out, like, I mean it serves as a really good analogy for just relations between the government and Native people period, between humanity and the planet.

“When I was watching the film, making it is one thing, I kind of liken it to you stand up for your friends before you stand up for yourself. I was almost more affected watching Mollie than I was trying to be the actress navigating and finding it in the scenes but then seeing it as a whole … I fell in love with her too. We have so many stunning Native actresses that have held their place so strong and beautifully on screen for a long time and I can’t think of another one where you see this love story that allows the audience in there too.

“Mollie survived but three of the Kyle sisters did not. All of us know somebody, somebody in our family, somebody in our close circles, somebody we grew up with and we don’t know where they are.”

“Killers of the Flower Moon” is directed by Academy Award winner Martin Scorsese from a screenplay by Eric Roth and Scorsese, based on David Grann’s best-selling book. With a run time of 3 hours and 26 minutes, the Apple Original Film made its world premiere at the Cannes Film Festival on May 20 in the Grand Théâtre Lumière to a 9-minute standing ovation.

The film will be exclusively released in partnership with Paramount Pictures in limited theaters worldwide on Friday, Oct. 6, and widely released on Friday, Oct. 20, before streaming globally on Apple TV+. “Killers of the Flower Moon” also stars Jesse Plemons, John Lithgow, Brendan Fraser, Tantoo Cardinal, Cara Jade Myers, JaNae Collins, Jillian Dion, Tatanka Means, William Belleau, Yancey RedCorn, Talee Redcorn, Everett Waller, Jason Isbell, Louis Cancelmi, Scott Shepherd, Sturgill Simpson and many others.

According to Principal Chief Geoffrey Standing Bear, an Osage premiere is set for July 8 in Oklahoma. Details are forthcoming. Check back with Osage News for more articles about the film’s Cannes Film Festival premiere and exclusive interviews with the director and cast.

Watch the trailer here: https://youtu.be/EG0si5bSd6I

Author

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Shannon Shaw Duty
Shannon Shaw Dutyhttps://osagenews.org

Title: Editor

Email: sshaw@osagenation-nsn.gov

Twitter: @dutyshaw

Topic Expertise: Columnist, Culture, Community

Languages spoken: English, Osage (intermediate), Spanish (beginner)

Shannon Shaw Duty, Osage from the Grayhorse District, is the editor of the award-winning Osage News, the official independent media of the Osage Nation. She is a graduate of the University of Oklahoma with a bachelor’s degree in Journalism and a master’s degree in Legal Studies with an emphasis in Indigenous Peoples Law. She currently sits on the Freedom of Information Committee for the Society of Professional Journalists. She has served as a board member for LION Publishers, as Vice President for the Pawhuska Public Schools Board of Education, on the Board of Directors for the Native American Journalists Association (now Indigenous Journalists Association) and served as a board member and Chairwoman for the Pawhuska Johnson O’Malley Parent Committee. She is a Chips Quinn Scholar, a former instructor for the Freedom Forum’s Native American Journalism Career Conference and the Freedom Forum’s American Indian Journalism Institute. She is a former reporter for The Santa Fe New Mexican. She is a 2012 recipient of the Native American 40 Under 40 from the National Center for American Indian Enterprise Development. In 2014 she helped lead the Osage News to receive NAJA's Elias Boudinot Free Press Award. The Osage News won Best Newspaper from the SPJ-Oklahoma Chapter in their division 2018-2022. Her award-winning work has been published in Indian Country Today, The Washington Post, the Center for Public Integrity, NPR, the Associated Press, Tulsa World and others. She currently resides in Pawhuska, Okla., with her husband and together they share six children, two dogs and two cats.
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