October 26, 2023 – This is a movie that fully illustrates the twin evils of racism and corruption. The more things change, the more they remain the same. So it was a hundred years ago in Oklahoma, so it is now.
This movie, directed by Martin Scorsese, unlike most of his films, is set in America's heartland, far away from the gritty urban environments of any east coast metropolis. Like many of his films, it is about organized crime and corruption. In addition, it is also about racism.
In this case, the racism is against the Native American Osage people of Oklahoma, who, like the modern day Saudi Arabians, lived on a land once thought to be worthless, but later became the richest people in the world because of oil. Unlike the Saudi's, the Osage distributed their wealth equally among their people.
The white settlers looked upon the wealthy Osage with envious eyes, and worked to pry that wealth away from the Osage for themselves. They justified their actions by believing that the Osage did not deserve their wealth because they did not earn it. They also viewed the Osage as an inferior species, not quite human.
The movie drives this racism angle with images from another event happening at the same time in Oklahoma, the Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921, where mobs of whites fought with blacks, killing as many as 300 and destroying a wealthy section of Tulsa known as Greenwood.
In Tulsa, part of the violence and destruction of property aimed at black people seemed to be related to envy over the wealth and success of the people and businesses in that part of town called “Black Wall Street,” a concentration of successful black-owned businesses. This incident was similar to another incident in Florida around the same time, the 1923 Rosewood massacre in Florida, where Rosewood was burned down, and as many as 150 blacks were killed by an envious mob of poor whites.
This massacre was depicted in the 1997 John Singleton film, “Rosewood.” This, and the Tulsa massacre, are not unique. Racially motivated mob violence occurred in over 20 American cities in 1919 alone. These crimes, among whites at least, went almost entirely unpunished.
The Osage murders also went unpunished, and uninvestigated, for years. This was the landscape into which young Ernest Burkhart (played by Leonardo DiCaprio of “Wolf of Wall Street”) arrived when he returned from service in World War I. Burkhart seems like a nice enough fellow, but he immediately sets about stealing jewelry and other valuables from the Osage, then graduates to more evil deeds. He is an ambitious and ruthless criminal.
Burkhart is encouraged to marry an Osage woman by his wealthy uncle, cattle rancher William Hale (played by Robert De Niro of “The Irishman”). Burkhart seems like a nice old man, who speaks fluent Osage and speaks highly of the local natives, but at heart, he is a ravenous wolf, hungry for the wealth of the Osage.
Encouraged by Hale, Burkhart marries Mollie (Lily Gladstone of “First Cow”) a handsome young Osage woman with the idea of inheriting her family's oil wealth when she dies. That means killing her and the rest of her family, which Burkhart sets out to do. This kind of murderous behavior was not unusual in Osage country at that time. A large number of Osage people were prone to sudden, suspicious deaths. They are shot, burned, blown up or slowly poisoned. Local authorities don't investigate these deaths. Anyone who tries to investigate these suspicious deaths is likely to wind up dead, too.
Hale and others are keenly aware who owns large shares of oil income, and they are aware of the number, and order in which Osage people need to die in order for opportunistic white people to succeed in obtaining a maximum oil inheritance. The Osage know what is going on, everyone knows, but nobody is doing anything about it.
Finally, Mollie and other Osage people travel to Washington D.C. to ask the federal government to investigate the Osage murders. Later, a team of investigators from the federal Bureau of Investigations (later, this organization would be renamed the FBI) shows up and begins interviewing people, including Burkhart and Hale. Heading up the team of investigators is agent Thomas Bruce White Sr. (Jesse Pleamons of “The Power of the Dog”).
Hale, worried about the federal investigators, quickly arranges for the preemptive deaths of witnesses. A number of people involved in the Osage murders quickly die, but some of those marked for death manage to survive, and testify against Hale, getting a measure of revenge.
As usual DiCaprio's performance is impressive, especially since he was originally supposed to play the part of Thomas White. He fully embraces his role as a weak, corrupt, evil man, who finally tries to do the right thing, even though he can never come close to repairing the damage he has done.
A number of native Americans play important roles in this movie. One of the more interesting natives, who plays undercover federal investigator, John Wren, is Tatanka Means of “Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials.” Tatanka Means is the son of famed actor and American Indian Movement activist Russell Means of “The Last of the Mohicans.”
Yet another native connection is the film's musical director, famed musician and composer the late Robbie Robertson (whose mother was of the Cayuga and Mohawk peoples, and was raised on the Six Nations of the Grand River reserve) to whom this film is dedicated. Robertson, of the legendary group, “The Band,” (featured in Scorsese's film “The Last Waltz”) was a frequent music collaborator with Scorsese.
I was surprised to see Scorsese appear in his own film in a radio show reenactment which appears at the end of the movie to explain what happened to the real people depicted in the movie. This radio show takes the place of the usual intertitle segment which often serves this purpose in movies based on historical events. This radio show segment is a very unusual and very effective way of explaining what happened to these people later in life.
In case you were wondering if the movie is historically accurate, yes, it is, for the most part, but some details were changed, as is the case of most movies based on real events. This is a very well directed and acted movie with great production values, but it is very long, at nearly three and a half hours. That takes up a lot of an evening, especially if the theater starts the show half an hour late, which was my experience.
The local Regal theater where I saw this movie not only showed lots of commercials and trailers, after the listed start time, but two of the commercials appeared twice. I ended up sitting through what ended up being four hours, without an intermission break (traditionally, most Hollywood films with a running time over two and a half hours include an intermission). But I made it through because of the exceptional quality of this film. This film rates a B+.
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