Who needs Scorsese? The Osage can tell their own stories

by Bobby Ghosh

Only a director of Martin Scorsese’s status could eschew exploitation and abuse privilege in the same movie. His “Killers of the Flower Moon,” starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Robert De Niro, displays unusual sensitivity in the depiction of the Osage community in which its story is set. This represents a welcome evolution from the racial stereotyping that has long blighted Hollywood’s portrayal of Native Americans.

But the movie, Apple Inc.’s most ambitious big-screen bet yet, is also an advertisement for Hollywood’s other troubling tendencies, such as extravagant spending and an over-dependence on stars.

If the story told in “Killers of the Flower Moon” is unusual, the story about the making of the movie is all too familiar. A celebrated director is given upwards of $200 million to indulge in a passion project, resulting in a sprawling, three-and-a-half hour saga that gets clobbered in the box office by a movie about a concert tour.  

Apple could have stuck to the best practices of streaming: Strong stories, tight budgets and relatively inexpensive talent add up to sustained success. Instead, it chose to act like the old studios, which place large stakes on the drawing power of big-name directors and stars. With that comes the risk of big-budget bombs.

Back to “Killers of the Flower Moon.” Based on real events, captured in David Grann’s 2017 book, the film is about the murder of Osage people for their oil wealth in the 1920s. Perhaps inevitably, the making of the movie was attended by concerns over whether Scorsese would do the tribe justice.

Scorsese told Time magazine he came to recognize that “I was making a movie about all the white guys.” The Oscar-winning director met with Osage Nation leaders and brought in Osage advisers to develop the screenplay.

And it shows in the final product, flawed as it is. The movie is far too long, the performances by its main actors are too unidimensional. Given his box office record, Scorsese has earned the privilege of making the movies he wants, the way he wants them, but this feels like an abuse of directorial star power as much as an imposition on the patience of the audience.

Still, Scorsese allows his Osage characters to breathe like human beings rather than cardboard cut-outs. If anything, they demonstrate a wider range of emotions than the white leads.

Inevitably, though, there are questions about whether the movie should have been made by a white director at all — and from a book written by a white man. Christopher Cote, one of the advisers recruited by Scorsese, told The Hollywood Reporter he wishes the movie had been from the perspective of Mollie Burkhart, the main Osage character, rather than of Ernest Burkhart, her white husband. But, Cote added, “it would take an Osage to do that.”

Might Apple have done better to hire a Native American filmmaker and base the screenplay on the writings of an Osage author, like John Joseph Mathews? Lily Gladstone, who plays Mollie Burkhart, has acknowledged it is unlikely any studio would have splurged $200 million on such a project.

Happily, that need no longer be an impediment. The evolution of the way entertainment content is produced — and consumed — allows for small-budget movies and TV series to reach wider audiences than ever before. A Native American filmmaker adhering to the streaming best practices that Apple abjured in hiring Scorsese, DiCaprio and De Niro should be able to produce a compelling series on the Osage murders. And, if done well, it should be able to resonate with viewers who are already displaying a growing appetite for non-Hollywood content, from Korean gore to Israeli spy drama. The platforms are there, and so is the audience.

And even if “Killers of the Flower Moon” doesn’t set box office records, it may have done a service to the Osage Nation — and other Native American communities — even just by hinting at the many stories they have to tell.

Hollywood should let them.

Bobby Ghosh is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering culture. Previously, he covered foreign affairs.