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The Stories Behind Martin Scorsese's Killers of the Flower Moon

In 1993, Roger Ebert wrote an article titled “The Innocence of Martin Scorsese.” He begins by stating, “The greatest living film director started out as a kid named Marty who I met in 1967 when he was fresh out of New York University. Now he is Martin Scorsese, the director even other directors would place first—after themselves, perhaps.” I, too, have been spellbound by Scorsese’s work; I followed his career after seeing “Taxi Driver” on television. Upon learning Scorsese had acquired the book rights to Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI by David Grann in July of 2017, and Leonardo DiCaprio had signed on, I was captivated.

Attending high school in western Nebraska, amid tumbleweed prairies and the Legacy Plains Museum on Old Oregon Trail Road, I learned about Native American history—yet was never taught about the murders of members of The Osage Nation in Oklahoma. In the spring of 2019, I began reading Grann’s well-researched book with immediate feelings of horror and anger. How could so many of these targeted crimes occur and not be taught in history classes? My hope is after the film’s premiere, discussions will begin about the Reign of Terror against The Osage Nation in our country that’s been left silent.

A brief synopsis of the Reign of Terror, in the early 1900s: The Osage Nation was moved to a large plot of land in Oklahoma. In a twist of fate, the land was rich in minerals and oil, and by 1920, the oil market was sky-high, bringing millions of dollars to the tribe. Wanting a piece of the action, Congress passed a law in 1921 requiring court-appointed guardians for each Osage person, including minors. Murder and corruption began with the guardians stealing Osage people’s headrights, whereby the guardian would inherit their wealth upon their death.

This article includes insights by Shannon Shaw Duty, the editor of the Osage News and member of The Osage Nation. She wrote articles about Grann’s book and filming in Oklahoma; she, her husband, and her three children were extras in the film. I also interviewed Jim Gray, a former Osage Chief (2010–2020), whose great-grandfather, Henry Roan, was brutally shot and killed during the Reign of Terror in 1923. He shed a wealth of light on the topic.

Jim Gray

I asked Gray if he had spoken with Martin Scorsese about the film, and he replied, “Yes, the filmmakers did reach out to me, and I visited with him. Descendants of the Gray Horse community victims, a subsection of the Osage community where the murders took place, were concerned about how they would be depicted in the movie. The filmmakers were invited to visit with the descendants of the families; about 200 people were in attendance for a traditional Native American Indian dinner. Furthermore, it was an opportunity to exchange ideas of concepts that aren’t in the book, although helpful for him [Scorsese] to incorporate." 

In our 40-minute zoom session, he recalled big-budget Hollywood movies with Native American themes, “Little Big Man,” “Dances with Wolves,” and “The Last of the Mohicans.” Gray then began reciting the words he said to the group: “Yes, all are successful Hollywood films that have three things in common that I hope you [Scorsese] try to avoid. All three of these films were written by non-Indians, all are works of fiction, and all required a white savior. If possible, you can avoid these traps in your film. David Grann has allowed you to do that with his book because it’s not a work of fiction. It is nonfiction. The people are real. And their descendants are in this room. And most importantly, let us help you. We don’t want you to fail, sir. We want you to make the film that everyone in your industry and the world will point to in the future and say, ‘That’s the one they got right.’ I’m asking you to let us help you.” Gray paused, then said, “My words were met with a tremendous response from the audience. Scorsese immediately jumped out of his chair and shook my hand.”

After Gray finished telling me this story, I saw the sincerity in his face and misty eyes. Yes, he spoke for his Osage Nation, of which he was the chief for ten years. Still, one also needs to remember he is a direct descendent of a murdered victim, Henry Roan, his great-grandfather. I will never forget his riveting, emotional retelling of that night.

Henry Roan, an Osage rancher, is played by William Belleau. Roan had close ties to the Burkhart family. Leonardo DiCaprio is cast as Ernest Burkhart. It should be noted that DiCaprio was slated to play the part of FBI Agent Tom White early on. In 2021 it was announced he would instead play the conflicted Ernest Burkhart, the nephew of Tom Hale, the powerful rancher played by Robert De Niro, and the husband of a woman of Osage heritage named Mollie, played by Lily Gladstone.

When I asked Gray his thoughts on the casting of his great grandfather, he said, “William is perfectly cast, as after spending some time with him and hearing similar family stories about the tough times of forced boarding schools, as my great grandfather endured, who, I believe never recovered from the experience.”

Scorsese’s work on “The Irishman” and DiCaprio’s work on Quentin Tarantino’s “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” put the film on hold. I read the book in the Spring of 2019 as the preliminary film meetings began at The Osage Nation Reservation in Pawhuska, Oklahoma. Also, by 2020, Covid had halted most film productions, which Gray feels gave the filmmakers time to rework the script.

Shannon Shaw Duty

Filming began in Oklahoma in April of 2021. Martin Scorsese was on set wearing a cowboy hat many of those days, and his cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto was by his side. Shannon Shaw Duty said of her extra work on set, “We always enjoyed ourselves. It was a big machine, the chance of a lifetime. I hope the film is as great as the experience was to film it. Everyone I talked with on the film said they were always treated with the utmost respect and kindness.”

I have two friends who live in Oklahoma who were cast as extras in the film, and one is of Indigenous heritage; they are also waiting anxiously for the film’s premiere, the location of which is still unknown.

In preparing for “Killers of the Flower Moon,” I suggest reading the source material book mentioned above by David Grann, watching reporter Lucy Ling’s “This is Life” series broadcasted on CNN, “Osage: Reign of Terror,” on Apple TV, and reading the Osage News online at by editor Shannon Shaw Duty.

After following the film’s journey for almost six years, I believe Scorsese will make his mark on history by bringing this Osage story to the forefront. My hope is the viewing experience, as horrific as it is, will be similar to watching Steven Spielberg’s “Schindler's List,” which I saw in Oakbrook, IL, with my oldest son the week it was released—people were in tears, and very silent as they walked out of the theater. Still, they knew they had just seen an exceptional film that was not only historical but conveyed empathy for the human condition.

For more on this film, read Ben Kenigsberg's review from Cannes 2023 as well as Chaz Ebert's article compiling Roger's reviews of Martin Scorsese's work.

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