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Everything You Need to Know Before Watching ‘Killers of the Flower Moon’

Martin Scorsese’s historical true-crime drama is the talk of the town — know fact from fiction with our guide

spinner image lily gladstone and leonardo dicaprio in a scene from the film killers of the flower moon
(Left to right) Lily Gladstone and Leonardo DiCaprio in “Killers of the Flower Moon."
Apple TV+

Killers of the Flower Moon (in theaters Oct. 20) by the Oscar-winning director Martin Scorsese, 80, is one of the most anticipated movies of the year. It’s a lavish, fascinating historical crime thriller about racism, greed, black gold and murder set in the prosperous Native American enclave of Osage County, Oklahoma, in the 1920s. The film plays a little fast and loose with a few of the facts, casting Oscar winner Leonardo DiCaprio, 48, as the much younger suitor-turned-husband Ernest Burkhart. In tandem with his uncle, Burkhart preys upon his native wife’s family in order to inherit their oil rights and untold wealth. The results are brutal — and for the most part, based on fact.

Here’s some historical background to help navigate the horrific crime against the Osage Nation, which at one time contained the world’s richest citizens per capita.

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Is this a real story?

Yes. In the early 1920s, a series of brutal murders, many unsolved, were committed in Osage County in what was known as the “Reign of Terror.” The victims were wealthy Osage tribe members who had been pushed off their original tribal lands, and pushed again, until they were cornered on a relatively small piece of rocky land — that turned out to conceal an oil field of epic proportions. The Osage had wisely negotiated for the oil and mineral rights, but that didn’t mean that their white neighbors wouldn’t go to extreme lengths — including murder — to claim the bounty.

spinner image lily gladstone and director martin scorsese sitting next to each other in a chapel in a scene from the film killers of the flower moon
(Left to right) Actress Lily Gladstone and director Martin Scorcese.
Melinda Sue Gordon/Apple TV+

Is the movie based on a novel?

No, it’s based on American journalist David Grann’s 2017 true crime bestseller Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI. It is a meticulously researched National Book Award nonfiction finalist. The page-turner painstakingly identifies the central victims and predators, the multiple crimes and cover-ups, the political underpinnings and the community in which they occurred. It also delves deeply into the criminal investigation and the formative years of the agency that would become the FBI — a lesser-developed thread of the movie.

What is a Flower Moon?

In Osage County, early spring saw the arrival of millions of tiny multicolored wildflowers that, according to Osage author John Joseph Mathews, resembled “confetti.” In May, larger plants like black-eyed Susans overwhelmed and suffocated the tiny flowers, burying them underground. When this botanical slaughter occurred, the Osage people called it the season of the flower-killing moon. The Killers of the Flower Moon is a play on words.

spinner image janae collins lily gladston cara jade myers and jillian dion sitting on the ground in a scene from the film killers of the flower moon
(Left to right) JaNae Collins, Lily Gladstone, Cara Jade Myers and Jillian Dion in “Killers of the Flower Moon.”
Melinda Sue Gordon/Apple TV+

How rich were the Osage?

​Very. The Osage Roll was a register that denoted every member of the tribe entitled to leases and royalties from the sale of the oil beneath tribal lands. These entitlements were known as “headrights.” The tribal roll, a census of those individuals and families with Osage blood, had 2,229 members when Oklahoma became a state in 1907. What began as a trickle of quarterly royalty payments in the early 20th century grew to be valued, in 1923, at $30 million. Adjusted for inflation, that annual amount was $400 million.

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Where is Osage County?

​The largest county in the state of Oklahoma at 2,304 square miles, Osage County is roughly the size of the state of Delaware. Established in 1907 when Oklahoma was declared a state, the county roughly follows the outline of the reservation lands of the original Osage Nation. Pawhuska is the county seat, now notable for being the site of celebrity chef Ree Drummond’s the Pioneer Woman Mercantile bakery, restaurant and general store just down the street from the Ben Johnson Cowboy Museum. Ree married into the fourth generation of the Drummond family, currently the largest landowners in Osage County and whose ancestors served as financial guardians during the Reign of Terror.

spinner image leonardo dicaprio helps lily gladstone get down from a vehicle in a scene from the film killers of the flower moon
(Left to right) Leonardo DiCaprio and Lily Gladstone star as Ernest and Mollie Burkhart.
Melinda Sue Gordon/Apple TV+

Who was Mollie Burkhart?

​Mollie Burkhart is the film’s diabetic heroine, played by Lily Gladstone. (The 37-year-old American actress grew up on the reservation of the Blackfeet Nation.) Like Mollie’s parents and three sisters, the full-blooded child, born in 1886 and known as the Marked Woman, was inscribed on the Osage Roll and entitled to its bounty. However, this wealth did not protect her family from government intervention.

At age 7, Burkhart was plucked from her parents and sisters and sent to a distant Catholic school for reservation children where she was discouraged from wearing native clothing and learned English. Once grown, she owned her own home and had luxury motorcars and servants — but was still beholden to a white financial guardian who controlled her money. Burkhart married four times. Her second husband, Ernest Burkhart, was the father of her three children. They divorced during his murder trial and she died in 1937.

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spinner image robert de niro sitting in a car while talking with leonardo dicaprio standing outside of the vehicle in a scene from the film killers of the flower moon
(Left to right) Robert De Niro and Leonardo DiCaprio
Melinda Sue Gordon/Apple TV+

Who was Ernest Burkhart?

​The native Texan moved to Oklahoma with few marketable skills and sought work under the patronage of his uncle, William Hale (Robert De Niro, 80), a local notable considered a friend to the Osage. Burkhart was two decades younger than DiCaprio when he worked as an occasional chauffeur for Mollie Kyle, and seduced her. Contemporary sources describe him as a tall, wiry, attractive blue-eyed charmer with a singular defect: a nose flattened by too many brawls.

While Burkhart introduced his wife to life-giving insulin for her diabetes, he is also suspected of slowly poisoning her to gain access to her wealth. He was also implicated in the deaths of two of her sisters, Anna and Rita. Burkhart was a central actor in the plot to steal the Osage oil rights by a conspiracy of lethal violence masterminded by his Uncle Bill. Sentenced to life in prison in 1926, Burkhart was paroled in 1947 and pardoned by Oklahoma Gov. Henry Bellmon in 1965. He lived until 1986.

spinner image robert de niro sitting in a chair talking to jesse plemons in a scene from the film killers of the flower moon
(Left to right) Robert De Niro as William Hale and Jesse Plemons as FBI agent Tom White.
Apple TV+

Was there a connection to the Tulsa Race Massacre?

​The race massacre in nearby Tulsa occurred contemporaneously in 1921. But that historical tragedy involving the murder of prosperous Black citizens and the razing of their town was largely, in today’s parlance, a hate crime. In the case of the Osage, ingrained prejudice against Native Americans was a part of the conspiracy, but that old devil greed was the driving force in the conspiracy concocted by rancher William “Uncle Bill” Hale to fleece his prosperous neighbors.

Is the Osage Nation still wealthy?

​Over the years, the tribe’s wealth has fluctuated with the value of oil. The Osage are no longer the wealthiest people per capita in the world. That honor of the highest average wealth per person goes to the Swiss, who possess approximately $685,000 per person. In Oklahoma, the dilution of the original headrights, the first tribal members entitled to royalties in the Osage Roll, occurred over generations through intermarriage and skulduggery, but many still receive quarterly checks.

Did the government act to prevent another ‘Reign of Terror’ on the Osage?

​In 1925, the government ratified a law that prohibited non-Osages from inheriting headrights, insisting the rights to oil leases and royalties remain with individuals who could prove they were at least half-blood members of the Osage Nation.

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