In our 40-minute zoom session, he recalled big-budget Hollywood movies with Native American themes, “Little Big Man,” “Dances with Wolves,” and “The Last of the Mohicans.” Gray then began reciting the words he said to the group: “Yes, all are successful Hollywood films that have three things in common that I hope you [Scorsese] try to avoid. All three of these films were written by non-Indians, all are works of fiction, and all required a white savior. If possible, you can avoid these traps in your film. David Grann has allowed you to do that with his book because it’s not a work of fiction. It is nonfiction. The people are real. And their descendants are in this room. And most importantly, let us help you. We don’t want you to fail, sir. We want you to make the film that everyone in your industry and the world will point to in the future and say, ‘That’s the one they got right.’ I’m asking you to let us help you.” Gray paused, then said, “My words were met with a tremendous response from the audience. Scorsese immediately jumped out of his chair and shook my hand.”
After Gray finished telling me this story, I saw the sincerity in his face and misty eyes. Yes, he spoke for his Osage Nation, of which he was the chief for ten years. Still, one also needs to remember he is a direct descendent of a murdered victim, Henry Roan, his great-grandfather. I will never forget his riveting, emotional retelling of that night.
Henry Roan, an Osage rancher, is played by William Belleau. Roan had close ties to the Burkhart family. Leonardo DiCaprio is cast as Ernest Burkhart. It should be noted that DiCaprio was slated to play the part of FBI Agent Tom White early on. In 2021 it was announced he would instead play the conflicted Ernest Burkhart, the nephew of Tom Hale, the powerful rancher played by Robert De Niro, and the husband of a woman of Osage heritage named Mollie, played by Lily Gladstone.
When I asked Gray his thoughts on the casting of his great grandfather, he said, “William is perfectly cast, as after spending some time with him and hearing similar family stories about the tough times of forced boarding schools, as my great grandfather endured, who, I believe never recovered from the experience.”
Scorsese’s work on “The Irishman” and DiCaprio’s work on Quentin Tarantino’s “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” put the film on hold. I read the book in the Spring of 2019 as the preliminary film meetings began at The Osage Nation Reservation in Pawhuska, Oklahoma. Also, by 2020, Covid had halted most film productions, which Gray feels gave the filmmakers time to rework the script.