*spoilers for Killers of the Flower Moon*

Coming out of Killers of the Flower Moon, I felt a deep sense of anger and sadness within myself. How could members of my own society not only let injustices of this scale happen, but even go so far as to enable it? That is not to say I had no idea events like these took place. Much like every other American, I was fully aware of the injustices the United States committed against the Native American peoples, however, this depiction was different. Instead of depicting an abstract conflict between two groups in which individuals are just part of a machine, director Martin Scorsese’s message goes entirely in the opposite direction; if we are to reconcile and heal from our past injustices, then we must also acknowledge the role that individual people, much like ourselves, had in these events.


To briefly summarize, Killers of the Flower Moon details a period where the members of the Osage tribe in the United States were systematically murdered by their white neighbors for control of the local oil fields. The slaughter of indigenous people in the United States is not uncharted territory for film or culture to address, however, it is how Scorsese depicts it that provokes conversation. Many other films, series, or books will depict this period in rather abstract historical terms, focusing on the systemic nature of these tragedies, with little attention given to the human aspect of these events. Scorsese does the opposite, focusing instead on the very real relationships at the heart of this story. 


The film primarily explores this period through the lens of the marriage between Leonardo DiCaprio and Lily Gladstone’s characters, Ernest Burkhart and Mollie Kyle, who are white and Native American respectively. Throughout the film, Burkhart manipulates his position as Kyle’s husband to entrench himself in the Osage oil business, enabling his friends and family to also enter. Ultimately, the greed for the wealth held by the Osage pushes Burkhart and friends to murder their Native neighbors in cold blood, which Burkhart and co. ironically refuse any claims of malicious intent. 


The staunch and adamant refusal of Burkhart to admit any sinister intentions goes beyond characterization.  Adding complexity to his relationship with Kyle, it is a direct reflection of the attitudes the United States government and society at large held towards its Native American neighbors. Conversely, the film’s Native community remains largely either unaware or unable to resist the hostile takeover by their colonizers. In this dichotomy, by focusing on the humanity of each character, for better or worse, Scorsese forces the audience to reconcile themselves with the idea that people just like them committed such atrocities. Similar to Hannah Arendt’s banality of evil, Scorsese reconfirms the truth that the perpetrators of atrocities are not comically evil, but are equally capable of emotion and affection as committing themselves to an inherently unjust and violent system— a fact which only compounds the film’s message.


In regards to the film’s depiction of the Osage specifically, it is certainly not perfect. Despite being theoretically the center of the story, the Osage are often relegated to supporting roles, albeit with the exception of Mollie Kyle. This critique is certainly valid; Native peoples do deserve to be the centerpiece of stories, especially when dealing directly with their past trauma. In occupying marginal spaces, these people are reduced to mere bystanders in their own tragedy – unable to articulate their own agency. However, by focusing on the murderers, the film overtly shifts its attention onto the responsibility of the perpetrators of systemic, and interpersonal, violence. 


In the current American political and social climate, recognition of past wrongs, and our broad responsibility thereof, is becoming increasingly rare. Certain American history textbooks describe parts of the abolition movement as “evil as slavery itself”.  Even on the campaign trail, former Republican presidential candidate Nikki Haley refused to admit that the American Civil War was primarily fought over the issues of slavery. Haley only walked that stance back weeks later after facing public backlash. Also infamously, former President George W. Bush has yet to admit wrongdoing in his invasion of Iraq, which caused an estimated 1 million deaths, and laid the groundwork for the rise of ISIS. Instead of addressing these injustices, they are oftentimes written off as mistakes or simply part of the human condition, and we are asked instead to focus on contemporary problems. This deflection attempts to completely obscure the lasting effects of these wrongdoings. Native American communities are some of the most impoverished, underfunded, and least educated in the country, and Black Americans are still contending with unjust systems, such as redlining or discriminatory police action, as well as a lack of generational wealth. Therefore, it should be unequivocally clear that these past evils are still impacting communities and people today.


This need for a re-examination of the modern world’s relationship with its past injustices is not only an American problem, but one that touches the world over. Even Germany, often lauded as a model for rectifying historical wrongdoing, still has much work to do. For instance, the German government took decades to recognize its genocide of Herero and Nama people in modern-day Namibia, only doing so in 2021. Still, Germany has yet to provide amends, only proposing a “joint declaration” in which it would provide $1.2 billion over 30 years for development in Namibia. The Namibian government still refuses to sign the deal, instead desiring direct reparations for the victimized groups, including those now living in diaspora communities. 


Alongside Germany, multitudes of other nations are equally as reticent to admit their past wrongs. France refuses entirely to recognize its treatment of colonial subjects, such as the slaughter of Algerian activists and students during the country’s push for independence. Japan often denies any wrongdoing during its occupation and war in China and Korea. Australia’s constitution still does not recognize Aboriginal peoples. The United Kingdom’s role in exacerbating the Great Famine in Ireland remains largely unrecognized. Overall, most if not all nations have one or multiple dubious chapters in their past, with only some being recognized and rectified. 

Certainly, cultural works like Killers of the Flower Moon will not resolve these lasting issues themselves. However, they still serve a vital purpose by forcing modern audiences to contend first-hand with the evils their society once perpetrated. There is unfortunately little sign of change as of late, however with any luck these difficult conversations can be encouraged and a more just world can be achieved.


Written by Reed McIntire, Edited by Viktor Kharyton

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons