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Killers of the Flower Moon and the Reign of Terror’s ongoing legacy
Yesterday I went to see the autumn’s big horror film – Killers of the Flower Moon.
It unfolds over three-and-a-half hours to recount the slow, heartless murders in 1920s Oklahoma of members of the Osage nation. Even though I had read the book, it was still chilling to watch a dramatisation of these racist atrocities.
It’s a horror film because the events feel disorientating in their enormity, but the monsters and cruelties were real.
The story and the film’s title were taken from David Grann’s brilliantly researched 2017 book, one of the best non-fiction crime books I’ve read.
It’s a story that needed to be brought to the attention of modern audiences. It tells how members of the Osage nation in Oklahoma had become immensely rich when oil was discovered on their land.
One by one the Osage were poisoned, shot and blown up, so that their ownership of ‘headrights’ (to the land and wells) could be stolen, often through marriage.
Mollie and Ernest
Law enforcement and the local authorities – doctors and the like – were in on the conspiracy. Grann’s book is subtitled The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI, and deals with how the Bureau of Investigation was pushed into the Osage case by its first director, J Edgar Hoover.
The film dispenses with much of the FBI history, which is fascinating in the book. However, to get to the emotional heart of the story, the film forefronts one particular twisted relationship – that of Osage woman Mollie and Ernest Burkhart.
Burkhart was the nephew of William Hale, a prominent local business figure who called himself ‘the reverend’. While masquerading as a friend and benefactor to the Osage people, he was insinuating his dopey nephew into marriage with Mollie.
In administering her insulin under his uncle’s direction, Ernest was actually poisoning her (perhaps unknowingly – the extent of his culpability is never clear). Once Mollie was dead, her headrights would have passed to Ernest, and effectively his master, Hale.
Robert De Niro, Lily Gladstone and Leonardo DiCaprio
This practice was widespread, as many as 200 Osage are thought to have perished in these circumstances. A disturbing conclusion that can be drawn from Grann’s book is that American capitalism was imbued with this kind of brutal gangsterism.
Robert De Niro is suitably dismaying as Hale, benevolent as he exterminates those he wants to rob. Lily Gladstone is transfixing as the silently intelligent Mollie, ten times shrewder than the dimwit she falls for, Ernest.
Leonardo DiCaprio has never been better than as the craven, malleable Ernest, giving a performance lacking in vanity. It’s hard not to cringe at his character’s gradual and stupid poisoning of the woman he seems to love.
People may criticise aspects of the film, but I feel this was a huge and sickening moment in US history that needs to be known better. Its baleful legacy reaches back to the appalling genocide against the indigenous people of America, and right up to today.
Echoes from 1920s’ Oklahoma
Two excellent articles add context to these events. In the Guardian, fraud investigator turned journalist Greg Palast argues that the Osage were still being fleeced by big business into the 1960s, and that much of the fortunes made from this are today powering the right-wing establishment and efforts to discredit climate science.
And here on Substack, Joe Pompeo reports on his chat with Grann for Vanity Fair, mentioning how a 2021 Oklahoma state law, which regulates classroom discussions on race and gender, intimidates some teachers into not teaching Grann’s book.
This isn’t dead history. Even today the Osage are still battling the government to gain control of the land they own.
I was totally gripped by the BBC podcast Bible John: Creation of a Serial Killer. Journalist Audrey Gillan takes us through an infamous unsolved case from 1969 in Glasgow that she investigated as a reporter. It initially focused on the lives of the three female victims, but it inevitably shifts to the police inquiry – and what a murky affair that turned out to be…
My novel of the week is Dennis Lehane’s blistering Small Mercies. Once again, it is real events that have sparked a superb piece of fiction. This time it is Boston’s White Race Riots of 1974. Here he is discussing the book and his career with CBS Saturday Morning.