FILMMAKERS HAVE LONG been ensconced in a fascination with First Nations stories. Films have the potential to right historical wrongs and bring greater attention to the issues faced by minority groups in the present day, but efforts to improve First Nations representation in major films have been tarnished by stereotypical portrayals as noble savages, white saviour complexes, and an inability to let First Nations people tell their own stories.
Portrayals of First Nations people in films to this point have been anything but authentic and have often teetered on offensive. Martin Scorsese is making strides towards changing that, and pivoted his most recent script when he realised he was falling into the same trap that has silenced voices in the past. Thanks to filmmakers like Scorsese, who at 80 years old proves it’s never too late to change, audiences are being presented with far more nuance, and First Nations voices are finally in the spotlight.
One of the biggest challenges facing showcases of First Nations voices in film is the question regarding whether outsiders can accurately and fairly communicate the issues facing First Nation peoples without imparting their own views on the matter, which will obviously diverge from the views of those that have experienced racial injustice firsthand. It’s a challenge that I myself must acknowledge in writing this article, and one that Scorsese was confronted with while writing the script for Killers of the Flower Moon.
Why did Martin Scorsese rewrite the Killers of the Flower Moon script?
Scorsese opened up on the extensive rewrites that disrupted the production of Killers of the Flower Moon in an interview with Time. The film, which is based on the murders of members of the American Indian Osage tribe in the 1920s and the FBI’s subsequent investigations, was originally going to follow a narrative focusing on the FBI, with Leonardo DiCaprio in line to play the head investigator. But Scorsese realised he was telling the wrong story.
“After a certain point, I realized I was making a movie about all the white guys,” Scorsese said. “Meaning I was taking the approach from the outside in, which concerned me.” Scorsese went back to the drawing board and rewrote the films entire script to change its perspective. DiCaprio’s role was switched to that of Ernest Burkhart, and the new script focused on Burkhart and his marriage to Mollie Burkhart, an Osage woman played by Lily Gladstone, a Blackfeet and Nimíipuu woman herself.
Speaking about the narrative of the original script, Gladstone previously echoed Scorsese’s sentiment. “The focus would’ve been the FBI, with Mollie and Ernest being part of the supporting storyline, instead of the central one,” she said. Gladstone has since assured prospective viewers that rewrites have meant the finished product “is not a white-saviour story.”
Gladstone has detailed the myriad changes to her character that occurred during the scriptwriting process, beginning with her audition. “Before the rewrites, I had three pages of some pretty mouthy dialogue,” she said, initially believing she wouldn’t land the part. Scorsese reworked Mollie’s portrayal, and came back to Gladstone, presenting her with an almost unrecognisable character. “Suddenly it was a scene that had minimal dialogue… And I was like, ‘Oh man, I can plug a character in here now. This is amazing,’ Gladstone said.
What is Killers of the Flower Moon about?
As mentioned above, Killers of the Flower Moon is a true story based on David Grann’s 2017 book about the mysterious murders of members of the Osage Nation shortly after oil was discovered on the tribe’s land. Following the inability of law enforcement and private detective agencies to uncover the perpetrators of the crimes, federal investigators were dispatched, and the succeeding events were crucial in the establishment of the modern FBI.
Killers of the Flower Moon deviates from Scorsese’s traditional style, but all the same, it’s still expected to take home considerable hardware during awards season. The film may be less conspicuous in its showings of violence, but is far more in touch with the plight of First Nations people than any of Scorsese’s previous work, with a focus on systemic racism, Machiavellian greed, and the widespread sense of entitlement that plagued the American oil boom of the early 20th century.
When will Killers of the Flower Moon be released?
Killers of the Flower Moon is set for a brief theatrical release in Australia on October 19th 2023, before heading to Apple TV+ for streaming shortly after.
The second trailer for Killers of the Flower Moon has just been released, offering a deeper look into the film that is expected to be a leading contender for the Oscars best picture award. Although, as someone who has read the source material, I must warn that you shouldn’t watch the new trailer if you want certain plot points to remain a surprise for your first viewing of the film. You have been warned.
Why is it important to get First Nations portrayals right?
The reasons for correctly portraying First Nations people in film go beyond historical accuracy. As is the case with many representations of First Nations people, the issues explored in Killers of the Flower Moon occurred in recent history and are still impacting many people today.
Killers of the Flower Moon was mostly filmed in Pawhuska Oklahoma, not far from where the events detailed in the film took place, and where the descendants of the story’s victims still live. It is important that this story is told with an emphasis on First Nations voices to accurately highlights their struggles, remedy deep-seeded issues that are still present today, and at the very least, start conversations.
This message rings true in Australia as well, where First Nations peoples have typically been portrayed in films as vulnerable, helpless, and at the mercy of white saviours. Australia, with a history based in colonialism, has its own dark past of oppression. The showcase of First Nations voices in film is necessary to promote social change, document their cultures and ultimately, to entertain audiences in a manner that appeals to everyone.
There’s a lesson to be learned from Scorsese’s commitment to First Nations focused storytelling, we can only hope his message is internalised, and that the next generation of filmmakers can learn from one if the industry’s all-time greats.