Killers of the Flower Moon re-ignites the conversation around Hollywood’s take on native America
Despite attempting to be authentic and fair, American filmmakers face steady fire from Native American voices for glorifying their historical trauma.
Martin Scorsese’s Killers of the Flower Moon is his personal tribute to the unconcealed and casual violence that went into building wealth and resources by White American men in the 20’s (you can perhaps replace this with early 19th century). Based on the 2017 David Grann non-fiction book with the same title, this film starts with a preface calling his project ‘proper and authentic’.
With memorable performances by Robert De Niro, Lily Gladstone, and Leonardo Di Caprio, the movie captures the greed that was on blatant display as Native Osage Americans were systematically killed when their reservation was discovered to have oil reserves in 1920s USA.
While the film has opened to very positive reviews and is set to become an awards season contender in Hollywood, the movie, based on a true story, re-opens the conversation around the portrayal of Native American and Indigenous people in American cinema and popular culture.
Reviewing the film for popsugar.com, native American writer Ali Nahdee has criticised the film as, “Hollywood likes the idea of an Indigenous story with Indigenous characters, but is uncomfortable with the reality and truth that Indigenous storytellers and actors bring to the table.” She observes the film to be underlined with violence that emphasises on how Native Americans die, giving them no chance at survival in a space where their way of life has no standing.
Nahdee’s voice isn’t alone.
Over time, Hollywood’s relationship with Native American stories has been contentious. When Sacheen Littlefeather represented Marlon Brando at the Academy Awards in 1973, she declined the Best Actor award on his behalf for The Godfather. Brando’s decision to boycott the ceremony was his attempt to draw attention against Hollywood stereotyping Native Americans and to highlight the standoff at Wounded Knee between authorities and an Indigenous tribe. Brando’s stand got booed and also a standing ovation in equal measure, showing the polarised nature of Hollywood on this issue. After her death, Littlefeather was called out by members of her family as a ‘fake’ Native American who just wanted public attention. Brando never joined the mainstream life of Hollywood throughout his illustrious career.
This particular stand-off inspired an HBO TV movie that won awards and critical acclaim for its handling of Native American sensitivities. Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee is also based on a book by the same name by Dee Brown. Written by Daniel Giat and directed by Yves Simoneau, this film takes a human look at the forced transition that Native Americans had to deal with in their ways of living in the 1860s.
Unlike this film, most films that have been made by renowned filmmakers on Native American history or culture have faced criticism for selective retelling or partial white washing.
Guillermo Del Toro also faced this criticism earlier for The Revanant. Ironically, the film won Leonardo Di Caprio an Oscar for looking broken and disfigured.
Del Toro’s need to be ‘authentic’ required Di Caprio to go to extremes like eat raw liver to capture the trauma of the bear attack survivor. Somehow, the pain that he suffers became the biggest draw of this film, getting Native American social commentators to call it out for glorifying the suffering of Indigenous people.
Kevin Costner made Dances with Wolves in 1990, a cinema classic that he acted, directed, and produced. Also adapted from a novel by the same name by Michael Blake, Costner’s film features Lakota, a Native American dialect dialogues and was shot in South Dakota and Wyoming to capture authentic landscapes.
While it does justice to the Native Americans, specifically the Sioux tribe, and their experiences under a colonised America, Costner’s film was called out for being ‘too simplistic’ in its interpretation of relationships. A White Army colonel becomes a trusted ally of the Sioux as both integrate in their ways of life. An epic sweep and an upgraded Western, the film faced much criticism in later years, making its legacy complicated.
Similar criticism–of over simplification and undermining cultural challenges–came for Taylor Sheridan when he made Wind River in 2017. This Jeremy Renner, Elizabeth Olson, and Jon Bernthal-starrer placed a murder investigation in the heart of an Indian reservation. Well received critically and a box office success, Sheridan faced criticism for pseudo authentic treatment of Indian Country by Native American social commentators. Sheridan used Kelsey Chow to play a Cherokee, opting out of using a Native American actor, which also drew criticism. His emphasis on highlighting the trauma of being Native American also faced heat.
Even with Native American actors in a film, dealing with the bloody history of native Americans are a double-edged sword for filmmakers. His anti-Semitic rants apart, he has an eye for imagining ancient history like few others. He made Apocalpyto (2006) with Indigenous actors like Rudy Youngblood, Raoul Trujjilo, and Mayra Serbulo. About a MesoAmerican warrior whose village is destroyed by the powerful Mayans, the film features near poetic scenes of violence and highlights the spectre of human sacrifice to preserve civilisation in 15th century America. Gibson’s film won high praise and multiple nominations for awards. But it got called out for historical inaccuracy because human sacrifice is visible in Aztec civilization and not the Mayan civilisation. The film was viewed as glorification of a violent past without focusing on the enriching elements of MesoAmerican culture, among other things. Apocalpyto remains a brilliant viewing experience nonetheless.
Popular films like the Twilight movies and the classic Last of the Mohicans (1992), haven’t faced a lot of judgement, although the portrayal of Indigenous cultures as exotic has been made for both these films.
With Killers of the Flower Moon, the clinical approach to killing Native Americans throughout might have rubbed people from the community the wrong way. The agony of Gladstone’s character is moving, but despite the criticism it is bound to face from Native American voices, Scorsese has brought an uncomfortable masterpiece.
The history of America is soaked in blood and injustice, a lot of which is still unheard. No wonder criticism will flow in. But it is important to make a film like this one with global movie stars just to highlight the exploitative nature of civilisation and Western cultures.
Edited by Megha Reddy