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Out of the 336 Oscars awarded for acting, actors of color account for only nine percent of those winners. Out of that nine percent, only two Native American actors have won an Oscar. This means Native American actors account for less than one percent of total Oscar wins. In recent years, while there have been programs featuring Native voices both onscreen and behind the cameras, there has yet to be significant change in the film industry regarding Native portrayal and empowerment. Native people are not cast in generic parts within shows or films, but rather, the film industry prefers to cast Indigenous performers solely as Indigenous characters. While casting Indigenous people can increase visibility and representation it can also be problematic considering that Hollywood has historically been complacent in creating harmful stereotypes of Indigenous people.
In the past, the film industry has depicted Indigenous people as wild beasts living in the wilderness. They often hold inferior and mocked antiquated portrayals of native civilization, reaffirming the notion that Indigenous culture lingers in the past. The dehumanization done on the big screen has aided in civilization’s justification for harming Indigenous people and communities. Not only this but, Hollywood also has a long history of casting non-Indigenious actors in Indigenous roles. Some of the most notable examples are Burt Lancaster in “Apache,” Audrey Hepburn in “The Unforgiven,” and Johnny Depp in “The Lone Ranger.”
There have been steps forward in terms of this controversy. The majority of society would prefer that Native actors are cast in films about Indigenous people. At the same time, there have been pushes for research so that films can be historically correct. A noticeable example of both of these components is one of the most anticipated films released this October, “Killers of the Flower Moon.”
Between Martin Scorsese being acknowledged as an icon in the world of directing and Leonardo DeCaprio’s legacy of dynamic storytelling, the film was destined to spark discussion within the movie industry, and society in general. Unsurprisingly, after considerable anticipation, “Killers Of The Flower Moon” grossed $41.4 million worldwide during its opening weekend.
The film undoubtedly has some positives. Representation of Native people was immensely expanded via the film, with members of the Osage Nation explicitly represented. The language, wardrobe, and actors all came from within the community itself. Lily Gladstone’s portrayal of Mollie Burkhart, is captivating on screen. Her performance encapsulates generations of rage and is inspirational to a new line of Indigenous performers who can now identify with someone on the big screen. Furthermore, the film reveals a story that vitally needs to be told. The atrocities done to the Osage Nation demand responsibility to be realized. Most Americans, due to the suppression of many historic truths, are oblivious to the full breadth and depth of brutality done to Native Americans, and while there are many educational platforms that try to correct this, the classroom may not be enough. Showcasing these issues in film may bring more awareness to the general public.
That being said, the film also has its shortcomings. The picture contributes to the loop that has been ingrained for centuries that anything surrounding Indigenous people equates to violence. While it is undoubtedly true that Native people have historically and continuously experienced pain and massacre, the constant reminders can be triggering for many Indigenous people. In order for stories of genocide, heartbreak, and horror to be voiced, the members of Indigenous communities are forced to relive and be reminded of the atrocities done to their community. This is also amplified by the contemporary concerns surrounding the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women movement and inadequate health care on reservations. The film showcases obscene, gory, and graphic deaths. It is difficult to watch a story being told from the expendable deaths of Native people. Devery Jacobs, a star of the FX series Reservation Dogs, wrote: “I believe that by showing more murdered Native women on screen, it normalizes the violence committed against us and further dehumanizes our people,” she wrote on X.
It’s wonderful that Americans can be enlightened on history by means of pixels, music, and cinematography but for the Native community it isn’t historical fiction — it’s reality. It's generational pain without contemporary empowerment. It is a remembrance that bloodshed and disparity is a fact of life for many Indigenous people. We don’t need to be reminded that our people are in anguish because it’s a reality we are forced to live in everyday.
The film worked closely with the Osage Nation, but the community still professed pain from the rendition of their past. The film views the Osage Nation as a relic rather than the vibrant and alive community they are today. The Osage Nation is not an antique in a museum to view, learn from, and then put away. They endured genocide for hundreds of years to reclaim their culture now. The legacy journey of resistance and perseverance is equally important to showcase apart from the death and despair.
“Killers of the Flower Moon” is undoubtedly changing history by fully immersing the viewer in Indigenous culture through the film, but more work needs to be done to correct Hollywood’s image of Native Americans. Visibility is important. Reconciling with the truth of what America did to its Native inhabitants is also important, but it should not be done as a tradeoff to the mental health of Indigenous communities today.
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