December 04, 2023

There are No Heroes Here: Killers of the Flower Moon and the Treatment of Indigenous Peoples

Rob Eschmann author photoBy Rob Eschmann, Associate Professor of Social Work, Columbia University

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This post contains spoilers for the 2023 film, Killers of the Flower Moon

Killers of the Flower Moon is as good as you expect it to be, directed by Martin Scorsese and featuring spectacular performances from Robert De Niro as Bill “King” Hale, Leonardo DiCaprio as Hale’s easily influenced nephew Ernest Burkhart, and Lily Gladstone as Molly Burkhart, a beleaguered yet resolute Osage woman married to Ernest. Even the story behind the film is inspiring, as Scorsese worked with the Osage Tribe leadership, employed over one hundred Osage as extras, and was intentional about avoiding the Hollywood trope of Indigenous folks in trouble, White man to the rescue.

But don’t expect to like this film. Expect unease. For three and a half uncomfortable hours my heart broke for the Osage community as I held my breath, waiting for some respite, for the calvary to show up and save the day.

But there are no heroes in this film. And that, perhaps, is its biggest accomplishment. Scorsese is the absolute best at making bad men likable. But in Killers of the Flower Moon, he doesn’t, and neither of the film’s biggest stars play empathetic characters.

As an actor, De Niro is the ultimate wise guy with a peerless ability to portray a mob boss frown as charming as it is threatening. But in Killers of the Flower Moon, where De Niro plays “the King of the Osage Hills,” a godfather of sorts on Native American territory, he doesn’t grimace like a gangster. Instead, he smiles, conveying that he is a respectable community leader who, as one of the only Whites in the film who speaks the Osage language, insists he is a friend to the Osage: their best friend, even. Yet his smiles make the audience feel uneasy, helping us to guess at the depths of evil that lie beneath this friendly visage.

Hale is the mastermind behind a plot to kill Osage Indians – by poison, bullets, or bombs – in order to steal their land and rights to oil money. He even convinces his nephew, Ernest, to slowly poison his wife, Molly, under the guise of giving her life-saving insulin shots, in order to control and then inherit her wealth.

We witness Ernest mix the poison into the insulin and give it to Molly several times throughout the film. Each time, I expected him to throw the poison away. Decades of DiCaprio films have trained me to expect him to be heroic. To find a way to outsmart the antagonists, no matter the odds.

The best moments of DiCaprio’s performance come when Hale orders Ernest to harm Molly and her family. The pained, helpless look on his face indicates a deep conflict – the type of conflict we expect from a character who is going to make a decision to turn themselves around. And Gladstone and DiCaprio’s chemistry is convincing enough to make us believe that perhaps the love of this family unit will overcome the plot to steal land and wealth from the first nations.

It isn’t. DiCaprio never turns into a hero. Even after he testifies against his uncle, leading to King’s conviction and imprisonment, Ernest cannot admit that he knowingly poisoned Molly, and she leaves him, finally seeing the moral weakness behind the man she clung to, telling people throughout the film, “he takes care of me.”

The third act of Killers depicts the arrival of federal agents, the first law enforcement officers who seem truly invested in solving the murders. Are these representatives of the federal government, who ultimately bring Hale to justice, the real heroes of the film?

The nonfiction book the film is based on, Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the F.B.I. by David Grann, provides more context around the treatment of the Osage at the hands of the US government, and the motivations of the federal agents. Of course, most people are familiar with how the government forced the Osage (and other Indigenous Peoples) to leave their ancestral lands, lest they be considered “enemies of the United States.” Grann quickly moves on to introduce the reader to lesser-known “heroic” acts.

The Osage purchased unfertile land they believed would not be attractive to White settlers, hoping to be left alone. But then came the oil, and the wolves. The Osage, like many native tribes, held their land communally, not as private property. But the federal government forced the Osage to split their land into individually owned plots, as holding the land communally was seen as anti-Capitalist and anti-American. Splitting the plots, of course, set the table for settlers, businessmen, and criminals to find ways to get their hands on Osage lands.

The government also found numerous ways to keep oil payments from the Osage, from paying them in food and clothes, to withholding payments to “idle” Osage until they began farming, and even insisting the Osage could not manage their own money, forcing them into conservatorship under “guardians,” the likes of whom we see in the film, and who historically not only stole millions of dollars but also were central to the plot to kill Osage and control their land and wealth.

The federal government’s reprehensible, demeaning, and criminal treatment of the Osage put the tribe in the precarious situation depicted in the film. In fact, the book shares that the government later paid hundreds of millions of dollars in settlement to the Osage for their unjust oil payment practices, but this was too little too late.

No, the federal agents were not heroes. They were sent to quiet a potential scandal, solving a handful of murders and thefts when federally authorized murder and theft was the law of the land. The Osage murders were as shocking to readers in the 1920s as they are for us today. The book details a bulletin that read, “the story, however depressing, is nevertheless blown through with a breath of the romantic, devil-may-care frontier West that we thought was gone. And it is an amazing story too…” Readers in the early twentieth century were unused to hearing about the brutal style of colonization, ethnic cleansing, and murder that they associated with Manifest Destiny in the nineteenth century.

But the racism that enabled those horrific acts persisted, and investigators noted how difficult it was to get Whites to vote to punish a fellow White for killing an Osage. One of the more chilling and clarifying moments in the film explicitly evokes the ways racism – not just greed – was behind the murders. Ernest asks a bootlegger to kill a man for him. The bootlegger declines, saying he doesn’t do that type of work. But when Ernest says, “he’s an injun,” the bootlegger looks up. “That’s different,” he says, and proceeds with the hit job.

Because FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover sent his agents out of self-interest, not heroism, it is no surprise they left before the job was done. Once Hale was behind bars, and the Bureau got the recognition it needed to demand more resources and respect, it ended the investigation, despite agents knowing that the Osage killings included more high-level conspirators than just the convicted Hale.

When discussing the film, a friend of mine (criminologist Julian Thompson) expressed surprise that Hoover would be concerned with the deaths of indigenous peoples, given his legacy of using the power of F.B.I. to target communities of Color. For example, a few decades after the events of the film he launched COINTELPRO to aggressively dismantle Black Civil Rights and Black Power organizations. This is not the only Black-Native connection hinted at in the film. The Osage and friends visit a movie theater where they watch a film about the Tulsa Race Massacre, with Black Wall Street burned to the ground, a scene that builds context for the evil acts done with impunity in Oklahoma in the early 1920s. Later, when a bomb goes off in a residential part of town, destroying the house of a man who had been investigating the Osage murders, someone in the night yells, terrified, “it’s just like Tulsa.”

Scorsese was intentional about decentering the F.B.I. in this film, a decision that ensures Killers of the Flower Moon is a masterpiece about the Osage rooted in history, rather than just another frontier film rooted in myth. Yet the film’s biggest shortcoming is the way it understates the pervasive and destructive role the federal government played in the pillaging of the Osage lands and people. An unintended consequence of keeping the structural and institutional sins in the background is that the Osage in the film are often portrayed as helpless – easily fooled, drunk, and incapable of fighting for themselves.

We see the tribe act when it sends Molly to Washington, D.C. to request help from the government (and in the film, this is why the FBI shows up). This frames the government as a benevolent force the Osage must plead their case to, and not the root cause of their suffering. The book, on the other hand, details the ways the Osage consistently advocated for themselves against oppressive government policies, demanding changes, over and over again.

In one striking example from the book, a group of Osage try to meet with a government official in Washington D.C., who insists that he doesn’t have time that day and turns to leave. An Osage man stripped off his blanket, revealing war paint and garb, and grabbed and held the government official, preventing him from leaving and demanding they be heard. That day the Osage left the Capitol with the agreement that their oil payments would be made in money, instead of clothes. The Osage didn’t wait until the killings were out of control to demand justice. There was never a moment when they stopped fighting for the government to loosen their oppressive grip on Osage lands.

The film’s epilogue documents a radio show being recorded, telling the aftermath of the story, complete with charming sound effects that bring a sense of a nostalgia. It ends with the Scorsese himself on the microphone, sharing that King, though convicted, didn’t spend much time behind bars for his crimes.

It sure feels like the bad guys won.

The belief that the ugliness of colonization is behind us, or the expectation that heroes save the day when bad guys attack, is the reason this film is so important today. For viewers and citizens and people who shed tears for the pain caused by colonization, apartheid, corruption, and laws that prioritize capitalist expansion over human dignity and life – the fight isn’t over. There are still humans being called, “savages,” or, “animals,” in order to justify their deaths.

Killers of the Flower Moon is a reminder that the imperialist project is not complete. And that there are no heroes coming.


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