“Killers of the Flower Moon’s” central love story illustrates the pitfalls of interracial dating

The relationship between Mollie and Ernest Burkhart depicts the insidiousness of white supremacy

By Nardos Haile

Staff Writer

Published October 30, 2023 6:00PM (EDT)

Lily Gladstone, Robert De Niro and Leonardo DiCaprio in “Killers of the Flower Moon" (Apple)
Lily Gladstone, Robert De Niro and Leonardo DiCaprio in “Killers of the Flower Moon" (Apple)

The following contains spoilers for "Killers of the Flower Moon"

Martin Scorsese's nearly four-hour-long Western tale of the brutal, bloody and greedy Osage murders is a cinematic feat. In "Killers of the Flower Moon" stars Lily Gladstone, Leonardo DiCaprio and Robert De Niro enrapture the audience from start to finish with bone-chilling performances with real-life archival footage from Osage history as a backdrop. It is a moviegoing experience that forces you to hold your breath until its last and final shot. 

It's never been about love — it's always been about greed. 

Most of this visceral feeling can be traced back to the intricately woven relationship between its main characters, a white army veteran returning from war, Ernest Burkhart (DiCaprio), and an Osage woman with generational wealth who lives with her two sisters and mother, Mollie Cobb (Gladstone). A majority of the film hinges on the blossoming interracial love story between Ernest and Mollie. Some critics say that the relationship between the couple is portrayed as too loving but Scorsese never pretends to hide the motivations that drive a deadbeat, grifter like Ernest. It's never been about love — it's always been about greed. 

At the beginning of the film, Ernest is returning from returns home having served in the military overseas to his uncle William Hale's (De Niro) Oklahoma estate. Not only is Hale one of the richest men in Osage country for his cattle ranching, but he is also the sheriff and holds untouchable political power and influence in the community. He is smart, and charismatic, knows the Osage language and is incredibly chummy with the Osage. He even calls them "the finest, wealthiest and most beautiful people on God's Earth." Scorsese brutally transitions to a scene where an Osage person is being murdered to set the tone for the atrocities committed throughout the film.

Hale lectures Ernest that the only way he will be successful in this town is if he builds a connection to the Osage people — specifically the single, marriageable Osage women. To Hale, these Osage women are an opportunity to be exploited because they are sitting on hoarded wealth that ultimately should belong to white men just because it's supposedly owed to them. Driving home his racist views, Hale even asks Ernest, “You like red?” about Osage women. He tells Ernest to study up on the people and their history because this is his way into the upper echelons of the community. 

And so a courtship between Mollie and Ernest begins when he becomes her chauffeur and ultimately charms her. Osage women are not ignorant about the nature of their relationships with the white men in their community. Mollie knows that Ernest is marrying her for the money but nevertheless finds herself in love with someone who's so eagerly ready to exploit her. As soon as their courtship begins, they are quickly married and have children, which means Ernest is one step closer to inheriting Mollie's fortune. But before he can become the sole beneficiary of this wealth, he has to pick off her family members one by one. This is when the murders increasingly begin affecting the Osage community. One mysterious and gruesome murder follows another — all orchestrated by the white men in Osage country but most importantly it's all been constructed by Hale and his money-hungry lapdog Ernest. 

Mollie becomes increasingly vulnerable as she loses all her family members: first, her mother, then both of her sisters are heinously murdered. Again it's all been perpetrated as a scheme by her husband and her uncle-in-law. Ernest even admits that one thing he loves more than his wife is money.

Osage community leaders, including Mollie, grow paranoid and livid that someone, namely a white someone, in their community is committing heinous acts of violence against the Osage. So they send a representative to Washington D.C. to appeal to the government but before he even leaves Oklahoma — he's killed. Mollie then hires a private investigator to look into her family's deaths but he is also taken care of by none other than her husband. She finally takes matters into her own hands and voyages to D.C. herself and lobbies on behalf of all the hundreds of innocent Osage people murdered at the hands of greedy white men. 

It's in Mollie's determination to catch the killer and receive justice for her family when Hale renders her a threat and danger to their insidious plot to steal her money. Hale demands that Ernest convince Mollie to take the rare Canadian-imported insulin to treat her diabetes. The insulin is administered to Mollie by white male doctors who are all in on the plot too. Of course, the insulin is poisoned. Mollie slowly but surely becomes sicker and sicker until she doesn't trust the doctors anymore. This leads to an explosive fight with Ernest where he calls her a dumb, stubborn b***h and scolds her that her Native ways won't save her from her illness — only modern medicine will. So Ernest personally begins administering the shots until Mollie is literally on her death bed ready to lose the battle of survival at the hands of her duplicitous husband.

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It's in this dynamic where Scorsese illustrates that the relationship between Mollie and Ernest isn't one of true love. It's one ridden with manipulation, and coercion and ultimately so driven by the power structures and dynamics of a colonial America hinging on and enforced by white supremacy underpinnings.

Ernest may be entrenched in the Osage culture, he may be married to an Osage woman and he may even have Osage children — and yet none of that is enough motivation to detract from him being a white supremacist who kills off his wife's family members for money. His status as a white man qualified him as a high-status suitor for Mollie. There is immense value in being married to a white man even though Mollie is the one with the real monetary capital. Because of the inherent power she held because of her wealth, he has to render her completely incapacitated for him to completely control the relationship and her. He had the support of his rich, influential uncle, doctors and bankers to inflict this harm onto Mollie and her family almost entirely without repercussion because of his whiteness and her Osageness. 

It's a story of how whiteness exploits so-called love as a way to inflict unexplainable, unfathomable harm and destruction.

Scorsese depicts that white supremacy has only ever had loyalty to its abhorrent cause regardless of who you're married to or even who you have children with. By the end of the film, Ernest and Hale are found out by the federal government and are facing prison sentences. Ernest still cannot admit to Mollie he had poisoned her. She walks away with dignity and he is a deluded, pathetic man never able to grasp the gravity of his deplorable actions. It's not a love story — it's a story of how whiteness exploits so-called love as a way to inflict unexplainable, unfathomable harm and destruction.

The "Killers of the Flower Moon" relationship is a specific and rather extreme example of colonialism's effect on interracial relationships earlier in the country's history. Today, the dynamic between a white and non-white person doesn't have to be as insidious as Mollie and Ernest's to be influenced by white supremacy. Just like how a one grows up with biases based on our own experiences, those same experiences can create blinders to privilege or inequality even in a loving relationship. Furthermore, interracial relationships between non-white couples can have their challenges based on each group's circumstances based in a world that is still built upon colonialism. 

Therefore, while the "Killers of the Flower Moon" marriage was clearly not destined for happiness, audiences can still learn from that example. White supremacy can easily influence a person in seemingly romantic relationships – and even if it's not driven by bloodthirsty greed or an evil agenda – those benefiting from its power can still exploit those who don't. Having an awareness of these differences and making sure they are addressed is where the challenge lies for modern-day mixed couples.

By Nardos Haile

Nardos Haile is a staff writer at Salon covering culture. She’s previously covered all things entertainment, music, fashion and celebrity culture at The Associated Press. She resides in Brooklyn, NY.

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