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Sunday, December 03, 2023
Tommo Grass (left) and Memphis Belle Cleveland (right) appearing at the premiere of Martin Scorsese's film "Killers of the Flower Moon" in Sun Prairie, WI.

Indigenous actors in ‘Killers of the Flower Moon’ praise film’s depiction of Osage tragedy

Martin Scorsese’s latest film is a devastating snapshot of white American greed and its lasting impact on Native Americans.

“Killers of the Flower Moon” depicts a haunting narrative known all too well by Indigenous tribes across the country. 

Based on a 2017 nonfiction book of the same name, Martin Scorcese’s film “Killers of the Flower Moon” unravels a deeply unsettling chapter of American history in painstaking detail, leaving audiences reflecting on the numerous atrocities depicted in the three-and-a-half hour film. 

The film depicts the dark and complex history of the Osage Nation and the gruesome murders of their people at the hands of white outsiders who sought to gain the Osage’s newfound wealth after the discovery of oil on their reservation. 

Lily Gladstone (Mollie Kyle) stars alongside Leonardo DiCaprio (Ernest Burkhart) and Robert De Niro (William “King” Hale) to bring this haunting story to life.

The film introduces viewers to the Osage Nation through the eyes of an outsider, Ernest Burkhart, who moved in with his uncle William “King” Hale after serving in World War Ⅰ. Ernest’s relationship with Mollie Kyle, an Osage woman whose family owns oil headrights, slowly introduces the audience to the Osage people and their ways of life. 

Gladstone’s performance dazzled the audience. Her way of speech was careful and deliberate, relying on facial expressions to convey what was left unsaid. Throughout the film, Mollie’s voice-over narration gives the audience real and raw insight into her anguish as, one by one, she loses family members at the hands of greedy and corrupt forces outside of her control. 

“Evil crowds my heart,” she narrates at one point in the film as she prepares to bury yet another family member. “They say I ought to kill these white men who killed my family.” 

Mollie’s voice-over narrations tell a story Mollie dares not speak aloud. As the film progresses, Mollie’s narration communicates her fear and anxiety as those around her continue to be murdered in brutal and deeply unsettling ways, taking her sense of safety in her home and community. 

Ernest’s one instance of voice-over narration in the film stands in stark contrast to Mollie’s. He recites some lines from a book about Osage culture over a montage that depicts him and other white men robbing an Osage couple at gunpoint.

“Can you spot the wolves in this picture?” the narration closes out, hinting at what is to come later on in the movie. 

By the end of the film, the audience feels as though they witnessed Mollie’s melancholy and pain firsthand, almost as if they knew her and her struggles on an intimate level. 

While the film closes with an aerial shot of the Osage today, dancing in their traditional attire to the beat of a drum, this bright and colorful scene reminds the audience of the strength and resilience of the Osage people and other Indigenous tribes across the country.

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Law firm Quarles and Brady sponsored a premiere of the film in Sun Prairie on Oct. 26 to celebrate Wisconsin’s Indigenous tribes. 

Most of the guests at the screening were of tribal descent, enrolled tribal clientele of the firm and elected tribal leaders. Also in attendance were special guests Memphis Belle Cleveland and Tommo Grass, who acted as extras in the film. 

Grass said it was important to have Indigenous people “from anywhere and everywhere” in the film.  

“I think it meant the world to a lot of us,” Grass said. 

As someone from Oklahoma with family members who are a part of the Osage tribe, Grass said being in the film meant a lot to him because he knew how important it was to tell this story. 

Grass said there are a lot of people who still share the same last names of some of the victims depicted in the film and many Osage people of his generation knew of people directly impacted by the “real-life horrible things” that happened during the Osage Reign of Terror — which refers to the nearly two-decade-long string of brutal murders depicted in the film. 

“I think it carried a lot of weight for a lot of us,” Grass said. 

There was “a heaviness” at times while filming due to many of the background actors having lineage that traced back to Osage family members who witnessed the atrocities depicted in the film firsthand, Cleveland said. 

“Not only were we over there portraying these people, but we're also almost having to relive what they had to go through as well,” Cleveland said. 

Cleveland said it meant a lot to be able to tell this story on the big screen alongside big-name actors, people she said were genuine and “respected our Native American values” on and off set. 

Although there were a lot of hurdles she had to overcome, Cleveland said she was glad she took the jump to be a part of this film. 

“I knew what this movie was going to mean for Indigenous people,” Cleveland said. “It's not every day that you get a story being told about the atrocities that have happened in many tribes, not just Osage.”

Though many of the guests at the screening were from Wisconsin, some traveled quite far to attend. 

Charmaine McDarment, a general counselor for the Tule River Indian Tribe of California, caught a red-eye flight from California to attend the premiere.

McDarment said she was unfamiliar with the Osage tribe and the atrocities they endured before reading the book a year ago. 

“I mean, every tribe has their stories of what happened to them. It didn't surprise me, but it was so tragic and hard for me to read,” McDarment said.  

“Killers of the Flower Moon” is eye-opening for people who don’t know a lot about Native American tribes and the hardships they have faced throughout American history, McDarment added. 

“It's hard to find Native American historical stories if you're not informed because they are not common knowledge,” McDarment said. “The film makes you think about what [Native Americans] have been through and what we had to do to survive.”

“Killers of the Flower Moon” was released in theaters on Oct. 20 and is also available to stream on Apple TV.

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Anna Kleiber

Anna Kleiber is a state news reporter for The Daily Cardinal.


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