‘Killers Of The Flower Moon’ Can’t Escape Its Own White Gaze

Not being a white savior narrative is not enough.


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Martin Scorsese’s Killers of the Flower Moon has been promoted on the strength of the filmmaker’s dedication to honouring the First Nations people. But the film itself fails that mission.

In his signature style of seemingly effortless meticulousness, and creating all-consuming worlds out of the power dynamics in micro-cosmic communities — Killers of the Flower Moon sees Scorsese lend his craft to the horrific Osage Murders of the early 1900s. During the ‘Reign of Terror’, as it would come to be known, the Osage Native community lost over 60 wealthy tribal members who were murdered for their land claims.

This is the story of Killers of the Flower Moon. It’s a story of how colonial capitalism and white American greed motivated the murder of dozens of First Nations people. Since its debut, the film has been promoted on the strength of its inclusiveness, activism, and by extension how Killers of the Flower Moon, supposedly, advocates for the condemnation of the colonial settlers responsible for the Osage Murders. Even the film’s co-lead, Lily Gladstone, told Vulture the film is not a white saviour story. And it’s true. Far from being a story about white people nobly “saving” First Nations people, the film is more akin to a slow-burn horror about the infinite cruelty of colonial settlers.

Unfortunately, despite the efforts of Scorsese and his team to involve the Osage in telling their story, the film adopts a self-flagellating white gaze. At every turn, Killers of the Flower Moon refuses to decentre whiteness. Instead, the film uses the gruesome murder of First Nations people, not to advocate for Indigenous humanity, but to showcase the lack of it in white people.

Adapted from the non-fiction book by David Grann, Killers of the Flower Moon unravels the story behind a series of murdered Osage tribe members post-World War I in Fairfax, Oklahoma. A tale of oil, poison, sickness, greed, violence, and deceit — both the film and book paint an appalling picture of systemic callousness with which white men married First Nations women only to secure their wives’ land claims upon their (uninvestigated) deaths. It was a system controlled by wealthy cattle owner William K Hale and perpetrated by his friends, family, employees and peers. The film’s protagonist, Ernest (portrayed by Leonardo DiCaprio), is Hale’s nephew and accomplice, aiding and abetting the murder of tribal members on the orders of his uncle. The pair’s victims even included Ernest’s Osage wife, Mollie Burkhart and Mollie’s own family — the murders and attempted murders of whom anchor the film’s narrative.

Scorsese’s portrayal of Mollie Burkhart, her family, and the Osage community is somewhat removed from the “savage” stereotypes with which First Nations people have been portrayed throughout the history of American cinema. This is arguably, the bare minimum in portraying Native peoples’ lives. For much of the film’s first act, the Osage seem indomitable, speaking their language with heads held high, their claims to lands brimming with oil seemingly affording them more influence than other Native people at the time. As the film unfolds, however, it’s clear the Osage’s rightful claims only make them susceptible to more brutality.

And the film is unrelentingly realistic in its portrayal of just how much violence the Osage people endured at the hands of white settlers. The racialised cruelty is portrayed in a business-like, transactional manner. Murder is the result of a handshake, of a deal made over poker and beer.  Scorsese lends his masterful, naturalistic eye to harrowing scenes of white men shooting Native women and men in the back, white men screaming at their wives for their “crazy Indian ways” and white men poisoning medicine intended for chronically ill Indigenous women. However, two hours into the three hour and 26-minute epic, it appears that Scorsese, like many non-Indigenous filmmakers, is more interested in the nature of such casual violence than the humanity of its victims.

Despite a performance from Lily Gladstone that practically redefines gravity with the force of her glare, Killers of the Flower Moon is far more interested in her suffering at the hands of her husband than her personhood. We experience Mollie and her family through the eyes of her husband Ernest, and Ernest’s Uncle, the “King”. Details of Mollie’s life before or after Ernest, is not shown, but conveyed derisively through Ernest and his uncle’s discussions.

It’s through their eyes we experience Mollie’s grief and paranoia as her family members, who have some of the largest land claims in the area, are murdered. Under his uncle’s command, Ernest is directly or indirectly complicit in the killings. But screenwriters Scorsese and Eric Roth afford Ernest the ambiguity of blurring his knowing complicity. Great lengths are taken throughout the film to emphasise Ernest’s lack of literacy, career, or education — and how such a “disposition” allows him to be “used” by his uncle to enact colonial violence. In these moments, such as when Ernest is struggling to read a guidebook aloud, it’s almost as if the film wants us to absolve Ernest of intent — infantilising him and supposedly diminishing his obvious racism. But it doesn’t work.

Even if Ernest didn’t knowingly poison his wife (at first), he did knowingly assist in the organised murder of people she cared for. What does it matter whether white men like Ernest weren’t aware of the full extent of harm they caused?  Scorsese and his creative team’s storytelling in Killers Of The Flower Moon, despite the best intentions and efforts to be culturally appropriate, hinge the film on the monstrousness of unknowing white complicity. But why should a white perspective, even a monstrous one, be the focus at all? Ironically, Scorsese told Time magazine he moved away from hinging the film on the FBI investigation like in the original book to focus on the Osage themselves, saying, “after a certain point, I realised I was making a movie about all the white guys… which concerned me.”

In Viet Thanh Nguyen’s acclaimed novel, The Sympathizer, Nguyen proposes that white Americans are no longer as concerned with being seen as vengeful or virtuous or even good or bad, so much as they desire to, “command the bright lights of center stage”. Indeed, time and time again throughout film history, films billed as advocating for marginalized people focus as much, if not more, on the humanity of their oppressor. Schindler’s List, 12 Years A Slave, Dallas Buyer’s Club, The Nightingale, Green Book, Oppenheimer, and countless other films prioritise the anguish of the perpetrator in stories in lieu of advocating for the victims and survivors of such horror. Unfortunately, Killers of the Flower Moon, despite the efforts of the filmmakers to be inclusive, falls into the very same paradigm that maintains a hierarchy with marginalised perspectives at the bottom.

Undoubtedly the film is a technical masterpiece. However, like many contributions to the true crime genre, Killers of the Flower Moon is riddled with a morbid, gratuitous obsession with abject violence and injustice. You could argue that casting stars like Leonardo DiCaprio and Robert De Niro in such roles helps bring attention to the discriminatory injustices the film concerns itself with. But the question of why their characters’ perspectives, as brutalising white settlers, were the ones prioritised in a film about First Nations people remains.

This sentiment was echoed by Christopher Cote, an Osage language consultant on the film. Cote told The Hollywood Reporter at the Killers of the Flower Moon premiere, he had some “concerns” about the film, stating, “As an Osage, I really wanted this to be from the perspective of Mollie [Burkhart].” Cote acknowledged it would take an Osage filmmaker to do that, but that Scorsese did a great job representing his people. However, Cote also said, “but this story, this history is being told, almost from the perspective of Ernest Burkhart and they kind of give him this conscience, and kinda depict that there’s love. But when somebody conspires to murder your entire family, that’s not love.” Cote went on to say, “This film was not made for an Osage audience. It was made for everybody not Osage.”

What might Killers of the Flower Moon look like if it truly was Mollie Burkhart’s film? Imagine if we watched, through a young Indigenous woman’s eyes, as the man who swore to love her destroyed her for money — and then attempted to find justice. Films like Warwick Thornton’s Sweet Country, and Wayne Blaire’s The Sapphires, are based on the true trials and survival of Aboriginal peoples, yet neither centres on whiteness. Instead, these films are grounded in the realities experienced by the Indigenous people, with white perspectives taking a backseat.

Killers of the Flower Moon is a film about white people, for white people. It is a film about how white people stole land and stole the lives of First Nations people for money and power. It is a film for white people who find their collective guilt more compelling than compassion. Indigenous people are more than what we’ve endured. We are more than a source of guilt and regret, we are more than brutalised sickly bodies and drunks, and we are more than the tragic collateral of white colonial capitalism. We are people with our own realities, love and lives that exist beyond the guilty white gaze.

Killers of the Flower Moon is in cinemas.