AP Breakthrough Entertainer: Lily Gladstone Stands on the Verge of History

by Ethan Kim
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Native American Representation

Lily Gladstone’s name carries a profound connection to her family’s roots, as she is named after her great-grandmother, who shared remarkable similarities with the character she portrays in Martin Scorsese’s “Killers of the Flower Moon,” Mollie Burkhart. Born a decade apart in the late 19th century, both women were deeply traditional, beloved by their Native communities, and devout Catholics.

Gladstone’s upbringing, straddling between Seattle and the Blackfeet Reservation in Montana, exposed her to the stories of previous generations of Native women. These narratives were filled with encounters with an increasingly modern America and the ruthless exploitation of tribal lands for resources.

While the Osage murders of the early 20th century unfolded in Oklahoma, far from her Montana roots, the tragedy, as a tale of sinister exploitation of Native people, resonated intimately with Gladstone. In “Killers of the Flower Moon,” she assumes the role of the anguished heart and compassionate conscience, not only portraying Mollie Burkhart but also embodying generations of Native joy, grace, and pain. The Big Big News recognized her exceptional performance, naming the 37-year-old actor one of its five Breakthrough Entertainers of 2023, as she masterfully delves into one of America’s darkest historical chapters.

In a recent interview, Gladstone shared her sense of responsibility: “I carry my family’s legacy. And I’m expected to carry my family legacy, in a way. Even though I’m not Osage, it did very much feel like it was in my blood.”

Gladstone’s role in “Killers of the Flower Moon” has catapulted her onto a grander stage. Her talent has been acknowledged with numerous accolades, including a Golden Globe nomination. Notably, she stands on the precipice of making history herself; if Gladstone secures the Best Actress award at the Academy Awards, she will become the first Native American to ever claim a competitive Oscar.

Asked about the significance of such a momentous achievement, Gladstone’s response is reflective: “It is, of course, something I have to think about, insofar as I would just really love to speak some of my language—and teach myself a little bit more of my language—to have and to hold in that moment. It would be an incredible moment in my life, but it would mean so much more than just me.”

Growing up, Gladstone, whose heritage includes Blackfeet and Nez Perce, had few Native role models on screen. She recalls Val Kilmer’s Madmartigan in “Willow” as a character that somewhat resembled Indigenous representation, mostly appreciating his long hair and sense of humor.

Interestingly, Gladstone’s initial aspiration was to become a dancer, with Maria Tallchief, America’s first major prima ballerina and an Osage like Mollie, serving as her first hero. The blankets she used in “Killers of the Flower Moon” were sourced from the Tallchief family, symbolizing the layers of women woven into her performance.

“Killers of the Flower Moon,” adapted from David Grann’s book, initially focused on the federal investigator Thomas Bruce White Sr., with Leonardo DiCaprio intended for that role. However, both Scorsese and DiCaprio decided to reshape the narrative away from a white savior storyline. Instead, they centered the film on Ernest Burkhart, played by DiCaprio, a white man entangled in the criminal activities of his uncle William King Hale, portrayed by Robert De Niro. Burkhart’s marriage to Mollie and his sinister intentions to gain her lucrative headrights became central to the story.

Gladstone’s casting was a pivotal moment for the film. DiCaprio recognized her as “the spirit and soul of the film” after just one day of shooting. She became deeply involved in shaping the narrative from the Osage perspective, bridging the gap between the filmmakers and the Osage community.

The production of “Killers of the Flower Moon” was characterized by extensive collaboration with the Osage, with Gladstone often serving as the liaison. To the Osage Nation, she has become an integral part of their community. Osage Nation’s Principal Chief Geoffrey Standing Bear attests to her presence at traditional dinners and emphasizes, “She’s part of our community now.”

While some in Indigenous communities have expressed concerns about a Hollywood production tackling such a dark chapter in history, Gladstone views the Native collaboration as a historic moment in film. She appreciates that the film revisits the 1920s, a time when Hollywood perpetuated stereotypes of Native Americans as savages, with a deep understanding of American cinema’s history.

For Gladstone, working with Scorsese on this film felt like restoring a piece of cinematic history and introducing Native women as characters reminiscent of those seen in epic films of the 1950s and 1940s.

Throughout the film’s release, Gladstone has engaged thoughtfully with the conversations it has sparked, effectively serving as a bridge between Hollywood’s past missteps and its evolving future. With the weight of expectations upon her, she remains humble, cherishing the fleeting moment as it unfolds.

In her own words, “It’s got its own pace, it’s got its own rhythm. It’s temporary. So like anything that’s temporary and fleeting, you just have to enjoy the moment.”

Lily Gladstone’s journey is not only a personal achievement but also a significant step toward greater representation and understanding of Native history and culture in the world of cinema.

For more on AP’s 2023 class of Breakthrough Entertainers, visit here.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about Native American Representation

Who is Lily Gladstone and what is her role in “Killers of the Flower Moon”?

Lily Gladstone is an actor known for her remarkable portrayal of Mollie Burkhart in Martin Scorsese’s “Killers of the Flower Moon.” She brings to life the character and embodies generations of Native American experiences in the film.

What makes Lily Gladstone’s performance in “Killers of the Flower Moon” stand out?

Lily Gladstone’s performance in the film has garnered significant attention due to its depth and authenticity. She skillfully delves into the character of Mollie Burkhart, offering a portrayal that captures the complexities of Native joy, grace, and pain.

What historical context is explored in “Killers of the Flower Moon”?

The film delves into the Osage murders of the early 20th century, a tragic period where the Osage were targeted for their oil-rich land’s headrights. It sheds light on the sinister exploitation of Native people during that time.

How has Lily Gladstone contributed to Native American representation in Hollywood?

Lily Gladstone’s involvement in the film includes extensive collaboration with the Osage community, ensuring an authentic portrayal from their perspective. She has become a bridge between Hollywood’s past missteps and a more inclusive future.

What significance does Lily Gladstone winning an Academy Award hold?

If Lily Gladstone wins the Academy Award for Best Actress, she would make history as the first Native American to win a competitive Oscar. This achievement would mark a significant milestone in the film industry.

How does “Killers of the Flower Moon” address Native American stereotypes in Hollywood?

The film revisits the 1920s, a time when Hollywood often perpetuated stereotypes of Native Americans as savages. “Killers of the Flower Moon” challenges these stereotypes by presenting a more nuanced and authentic portrayal of Native characters.

What role did Leonardo DiCaprio play in the film?

Leonardo DiCaprio plays the character Ernest Burkhart, a white man married to Mollie Burkhart and involved in criminal activities seeking to inherit her lucrative headrights. The film’s focus shifted away from a white savior narrative to explore this complex relationship.

How has the Osage Nation reacted to the film and Lily Gladstone’s involvement?

The Osage Nation has been deeply involved in the film’s production, and Lily Gladstone has played a vital role as a liaison between the filmmakers and the community. She has become an integral part of their community, attending traditional events and dinners.

What is Lily Gladstone’s perspective on her momentous journey with the film?

Lily Gladstone remains humble and cherishes the fleeting nature of her journey. She sees it as a temporary but significant moment, emphasizing the importance of enjoying the experience as it unfolds.

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