Film

Greed, betrayal and exploitation: The cruel true story behind Scorsese's Killers of the Flower Moon

Principal chief of the Osage Nation Geoffrey Standing Bear on the making of Scorsese's new epic, Killers of the Flower Moon

Scorsese, with DiCaprio, Gladstone and De Niro

Scorsese on set with the cast, DiCaprio, Gladstone and De Niro. Killers of the Flower Moon

A century ago, the richest people per capita in the world didn’t live in New York or London or Paris. On the Osage reservation in Oklahoma, a nation of Native Americans discovered that the seemingly barren land they had been forced onto was in fact rich with oil. 

Tragedy followed the newfound prosperity. Over more than a decade, white plotters married and murdered the Osage to inherit the rights to the oil, in what became known as the Reign of Terror. It is suspected that hundreds of Osage were murdered. This is the story that legendary filmmaker Martin Scorsese, at 80 years old, has told in his new film, a three-hour, 26-minute epic based on David Grann’s book of the same name: Killers of the Flower Moon

Leonardo DiCaprio and Lily Gladstone in Killers of the Flower Moon
Leonardo DiCaprio and Lily Gladstone in Killers of the Flower Moon

And it is this story, with its impacts still felt now, that has led current Osage chief Geoffrey Standing Bear to London for the first time, encountering his first cup of “British tea”.  

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“It is a way to show the world this is a true story, and you can take away from it what you want. I would think people need to understand that it’s showing that if this can happen to us, it can happen to anyone. That’s the story,” Standing Bear tells The Big Issue. 

Principal Chief Standing Bear
Principal Chief Standing Bear. Image: Getty

With the film set to be released on 20 October, Standing Bear explains that the once-wealthy Osage people still face struggles with housing, healthcare and their rights. 

“This situation continues but on a much lower level of intensity,” he says. 

Spanning from 1918 to 1931, the Reign of Terror is an under-acknowledged but not unknown story, brought back to prominence by Grann’s 2017 book. Subtitled The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI, the work of non-fiction runs along like a mystery. 

Scorsese flips the book on its head – it’s not a whodunnit but a “who didn’t do it” – exploring in depth Osage culture, white supremacy, and placing the systematic betrayal and exploitation at the heart of the story. 

Leonardo DiCaprio, Robert De Niro and scene-stealing Native American actor Lily Gladstone play real figures William Hale, and married couple Ernest and Mollie Burkhart.  

William Hale
William Hale around the time of his arrest. Image: Bettmann Archive/Getty Images

“The pandemic really knocked a lot of the stuffing out, so to speak, and we had to really rethink the picture,” Scorsese explained at a talk with Edgar Wright at the London Film Festival. 

“But I’m glad I had that time to rethink it, because [Leo] said to me ‘where’s the heart of the movie?’ And I immediately said, well it’s Mollie and Ernest, because they’re in love. I found that out from hanging out with the Osage in Oklahoma, because they pointed out it isn’t as simple as people coming in and shooting and poisoning. It’s people’s trust.” 

Ripping the script “inside out”, as Scorsese describes, contributed to Paramount dropping its initial financial support for the film, but also meant the film was produced with a deep involvement from the Osage community. While the result is indelibly American in its specifics, audiences in the UK won’t need to think too hard to be reminded of examples of minorities exploited for their natural resources, and of how easily systems and individuals allow that to happen. 

“The insidious nature of complicity, it seems to find its way, and next thing you know it’s genocidal. And that’s what I’m trying to get at in the movie,” said Scorsese. 

 Filming for Killers of the Flower Moon took place on location in Osage County. Scorsese, with his instantly recognisable bushy eyebrows and back catalogue spanning Goodfellas, The Wolf of Wall Street, Taxi Driver, became a constant presence, making multiple initial visits to win the trust of the community. 

“Once he said we’re going to film here, I said OK, this is an opportunity. Once he said that, I said OK. Basically, I was saying ‘OK, now prove it. So here’s the people you need to talk to,’” says Standing Bear, a 70-year-old former lawyer whose role sees him act as the head of the Osage government. 

“Just because they say that they’re going to film here, well they could still do a film in our capital, our people, in Gray Horse and Fairfax, and not be telling our story through our voice,” Standing Bear adds.  

This kickstarted a process of building trust, during which Standing Bear acted as a ‘traffic cop’, directing the cast and crew to the people who could help them. This collaboration resulted in a film with actors speaking Osage – at points not subtitled for the audience – ceremonies filling scenes, and a celebration of the past and present of the Osage people. Hundreds of Osage were cast as extras, with speaking roles found for many to increase the fees they received. 

Before filming began, the cast, crew, and community gathered outside the towns in Osage County to say a prayer. 

“We showed up and brought some Osages with me, primarily Archie Mason, who’s the head committee man, head of the ceremonies at Gray Horse, and he said a prayer for the people involved and for the film and that we stay on a good course and everything goes well. He made a long prayer there,” Standing Bear recalls. 

“And then we handed over to OJ Littlecook, an Osage who had a hand drum, and he sang a prayer song. So we started that way, which is what we’re supposed to do. It’s very important we start that way. We believe things are going to be better than if we didn’t do that.” 

After production had wrapped, 800 members of the Osage nation and other tribes went to nearby Tulsa to watch a screening. 

“When that occurred we went to our Tulsa casino, small casino, north of Tulsa, back in our territory. We had our people there, we had a dinner there. Several hundred Osages were there, Marty was there, Leonardo was there and some others – Jesse Plemons – and others were there,” Standing Bear recalls. 

“To begin, as we do, the chief gets up, welcomes, and says now I want to turn this over to prayer. And we had the same man, Archie Mason, get up there and pray for everything that’s happened and give thanks for everything that’s happened. And then to blessings on the food, and those who prepared the food. We had our Osage princess up there with us and we did that. Instead of just one guy with a hand drum, we had a whole set of singers – 10 or 11 singers – singing around the big drums. 

“It’s important to know we kind of bookend these things. That’s how we do things.”  

It’s encouraging that we can see that our language and culture is being discussed and displayed correctly on screen

Geoffrey Standing Bear

Alongside featuring on screen, members of the tribe were involved in the production of the film. Young Osages worked building sets, and Standing Bear recalls two students who came back to the county from their faraway studies to work with the cinematography team. There’s the opportunity for the film to leave a lasting legacy. 

“All of these aspects behind of the camera, they say, we had Osages working and learning skills. Some of them have now been pursuing that on their own with other opportunities. It’s just connecting with these professionals who spent so much time with us – it’s inspiring to us, especially our younger people,” Standing Bear says.  

“It’s encouraging that we can see that our language and culture is being discussed and displayed correctly on screen. That’s encouraging, but it’s also our economic interest.” 

As is often the case with exploitation, it compounds over time and is given a legal veneer. After being driven off their Kansas reservation in the late 1800s, the Osage tribe purchased the land which is now Osage county. Members of the tribe were allotted equal rights – headrights – to any mineral wealth on the land, separately to who owned that land. 

Yet as this oil bore fruit, newly wealthy Osage were deemed “incompetent” and appointed guardians to manage their money and spending. And so it was not just the murder of individual Osage, betrayed by white plotters to inherit the oil headrights, but a system reinforcing this, stopping the victims being taken seriously. 

These systems take root again and again, across the world. As the characters of Killers of the Flower Moon sit down in a cinema midway through the film, Scorsese uses the opportunity to show how oppression reproduces and reverberates. 

“Interestingly Marty had chosen to put into the film a clip of the 1921 Tulsa race massacre – they used to call it when I was younger the Tulsa race riot, but really it wasn’t the Black community that rioted, history has shown. It was the predominantly white community that rioted against the Black community and burnt it to the ground. So there’s black and white footage of that in 1921 that was occurring at the same time. I guess you could say 1921, where I live, that was a difficult time for people of colour,” Standing Bear says. 

“Ours was a bad story, but a lot of people didn’t know – and still don’t know about – that Tulsa riot and the effects it’s had on the communities there in Tulsa, which is right on the edge – part of that town is on our lands.” 

The scale and nature of injustice is such that it isn’t resolved to this day. The Osage still grapple with the government for control over their land and oil rights. 

Mollie Burkhart
Mollie Burkhart, who died in 1937. Image: Getty

The guardianship system has been trimmed back, but Standing Bear says they haven’t made progress since the ’70s and ’80s on ownership, and still grapple with the government for control over their oil and land rights. A $380 million (£310m) settlement came from the federal government in 2011. 

Lower oil production makes life challenging. As an example of the difficulties still faced by the Osage, Standing Bear says decent internet access is only beginning to be rolled out. 

“It is something that would take a lot of changes in United States federal law, and so it’s discouraging but we keep trying, and this movie is encouraging for us to want to change the laws too. We can’t go back in time, but at least allow us more control,” he says. 

Standing Bear is pushing for federal legislation to remove government control but retain the Osage’s status as a federally recognised tribe.  

“We know it needs to be done, but there’s no federal legislators that have the guts to make sweeping changes.  

Current proposals for so-called sweeping changes are “just words with no meaning, no truth to them,” Standing Bear says. They give the Osage no hope of regaining prosperity or “to face the health difficulties, education, internet, housing, all the difficulties that can be overcome. It’s not like these are insurmountable. People working together in partnership can do this.”  

Geoffrey Standing Bear, Martin Scorsese and Thelma Schoonmaker
Geoffrey Standing Bear with Martin Scorsese and film editor Thelma Schoonmaker at the BFI London Film Festival. Image: Dave Benett

While this continues, the complicity depicted in Killers of the Flower Moon runs to this day. 

“It’s like David Grann said, it’s not who was complicit, it’s who wasn’t complicit. It shows that people can stand back and watch the behaviour of others which is evil and somehow by just being around it, or being somehow affected like working in the government office, typing up cheques to a guardian, there’s complicity there,” he says. 

“To sit back and watch others suffer, and watch an evil system at work, is complicity.” 

Killers of the Flower Moon is in cinemas from 20 October.

This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine, which exists to give homeless, long-term unemployed and marginalised people the opportunity to earn an income. To support our work buy a copy!

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