'Of course we should be here': 'Killers of the Flower Moon' receives a 9-minute ovation at Cannes
Updated May 24, 2023 at 12:52 PM ET
It's not everyday that you see Indigenous people own the red carpet at the Cannes International Film Festival, but that was the scene at the premiere of Killers of the Flower Moon. Some showed off the fashions of Indigenous designers and others wore traditional dress.
The film tells the story of a traumatic chapter in Osage Nation history. It's based on David Grann's non-fiction book about a series of brutal murders that took place in Oklahoma in the 1920s targeting Osage people for their headrights — a share of the mineral rights to their oil-rich land.
The film is directed by Martin Scorsese and stars Lily Gladstone, Leonardo DiCaprio and Robert De Niro along with a large cast of Indigenous actors including Tantoo Cardinal, JaNae Collins and Jillian Dion (Lily Gladstone is Blackfeet and Nez Perce).
Dr. Moira RedCorn, who was an extra in the film, wore a traditional Osage blanket made by her mother. She said the attention didn't phase her: "You know, it felt natural ... like, oh, of course we should be here."
But the large Indigenous cast that makes up Killers of the Flower Moon is rare. It's even more unusual to see them take over a space historically dominated by white actors.
And when the film screening ended, it received a 9-minute standing ovation.
"The first probably 30 minutes, I was like, 'oh, there's so-and-so, there's my cousin'," said RedCorn, who knew a lot of the people in the film because it was shot in the Osage Nation. In the summer of 2021, Kihekah Avenue, the main street of Pawhuska, Okla., was blocked off from traffic and became a movie set.
"It was haunting, but it wasn't gratuitous," she said referring to the murders depicted in the film.
It was 'a reign of terror'
Killers of the Flower Moon is driven by the portrayal of Mollie Burkhart. Mollie was Osage and had a headright. In order to obtain her wealth, her white husband Ernest slowly poisoned her at the behest of his uncle, William Hale, a white, Texas cattleman who masterminded many of the murders and was eventually sent to prison.
Even though the film centers around the real life murders of Mollie, her mother and three sisters, there were others that still remain unsolved.
Osage citizens say this story deserves attention.
"Obviously, the whole movie is going to be emotional, and is going to be hard to watch," said Yancey Red Corn, who plays the Osage Principal Chief Bonnicastle — the leader of the tribal nation in the early 1920s.
Red Corn's great grandfather was poisoned during the period often referred to as the reign of terror. He came to France to see the movie because he wanted to honor the victims and he liked the way the story was told.
"I was really impressed how Marty and his crew ... like his right hand person, Marianne Bower really, really got into the culture and really asked the right people to be involved," Red Corn says.
'These are very hardworking people'
The film had Osage art directors, cinematographers and makeup artists. Scorsese met with Osage citizens in the Grayhorse community near Fairfax, Okla., where many of the murders took place. Based on that meeting he changed the story from a movie about the birth of the FBI to one that centered on the trust Osage citizens had placed in their white neighbors and the federal government and the betrayal of that trust.
"I learned about the people themselves and the stories," Scorsese told reporters. "And there's still relations and there's still issues," he said referring to what Osage citizens told him about Mollie and Ernest and their descendants during the dinner in Grayhorse. "And I said there's the story."
He and Bower worked with the Osage language department to be accurate. Lily Gladstone, Leonardo DiCaprio and Robert DeNiro all speak Osage in the movie. Osage Nation Principal Chief Geoffrey Standing Bear said he was impressed by the effort the actors made.
"Maybe [you] think that, oh, well, Bob De Niro just wakes up and naturally everything comes right out ... But ... these are very hardworking people."
Cara Jade Myers, who plays Anna Brown, said Indigenous involvement is the reason the movie is getting such glowing reviews.
"I've been on sets before and you walk in there and you're the only Native and then literally you're the cultural consultant. ... You're like the the fact checker," Myers said referring to previous experience. "You know, they expect you to know everything."
She said those expectations weren't present on this set.
"Honestly, I hope that this sparks conversations and then the conversations will spark movement and the movement will spark change," said Myers about how the process went.
It has sparked conversation. Over the weekend, former Principal Chief Jim Gray, who is a descendant of Henry Roan, one of the Osages murdered for his headright weighed in on Twitter about the movie and how his people were treated and portrayed.
The dignity and care for the Osage perspective was genuine and honest throughout the process and the Osage responded with the kind of passion and enthusiasm that met this historic moment.— Jim Gray (The former Chief) (@JimGraytweetz) May 20, 2023
"The choice that the filmmakers made to shoot it on location, the willingness to rewrite the script during the pandemic in such a way that moved the lead character from one character to another character," Gray said referring to the choice Scorsese and his team made to focus on Mollie and Ernest, rather than the FBI.
"You're always, you know, a little hesitant, right?" said actor Tatanka Means, who plays real life Native FBI agent John Wren. But he says the experience working on this film was different.
"Martin Scorsese laid down a new foundation here that I hope other filmmakers take into consideration," said Means. "I hope other studios ... and writers go to the community, go to the people, speak with them. That's big."
'We are still here and we are thriving'
The movie is sure to bring a lot of attention to the Osage Nation and Oklahoma. That attention could put pressure to return Osage headrights to the tribal nation. Of the 2,229 headrights more than 500 are now in non-Osage hands. That's a direct result of the murders and activities surrounding them.
In 2021, The Osage Minerals Council, which oversees the estate, asked for non-Osages to return their headright and is seeking federal legislation to make that process easier.
For the Osage Nation, this movie and the depiction of one of the most painful chapters in their history is is a big deal. But they want people to know they're not relics. As the film comes out this fall the tribal nation will have its own message campaign Wah Zha Zhe Always: We are still here and we are thriving.
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