Director Martin Scorsese upcoming film Flower Moon Killer features a major role by a Native American actress, which is an “anomaly” for Hollywood even in 2023, according to a new report from the University of Southern California’s Annenberg Inclusion Initiative.
The report was released on Tuesday, just three days before Scorsese’s latest film is set to hit theaters in the US. The report assessed data on Native American depictions in hundreds of the biggest Hollywood films over the past 16 years.
Native Americans have historically had limited on-screen speaking roles, an industry trend that continued during the period studied by researchers. After evaluating the 1,600 highest-grossing Hollywood films released between 2007 and 2022, researchers concluded that less than 0.25 percent of the speaking roles in those films were played by Native Americans. The report pointed out the difference between that number and population data from the U.S. Census, which estimated in July 2022 that American Indians and Alaska Natives made up about 1.3 percent of the U.S. population.
Of all 1,600 films, only one – 2020 The New Mutants– cast a lead role with a local actor, the report said. Meanwhile, more than half of the local actors with speaking roles “had no significance for the plot”.
The number of Native American characters portrayed on screen in the best films has changed from year to year, but never significantly. Data showed that 2018 saw the lowest number with just two portrayals, or 0.05 percent of the 3,895 characters portrayed on screen that year.
The largest number was recorded in 2017, when 20 Native American characters – or 0.54 percent of that year’s 3,691 characters – were introduced. Another rarity were depictions of female Indians, which accounted for 22.6 percent of the total number of depictions of Indians between 2007 and 2022.
Nor were Indian actors used in all depictions. According to the report’s data, only about three out of four Native roles were cast by Native actors, many of whom recurred in multiple films.
“Certainly there has been no meaningful and sustained change over time,” the report said, later adding that its findings were “disheartening at best or tragic at worst.”
Flower Moon Killer is unique because it places a Native American woman, played by Lily Gladstone, at the center of its story about the Osage murders in Oklahoma in the 1920s. The film is based on the 2017 book of the same name by David Grann.
Gladstone’s role is “quite literally an anomaly in Hollywood,” Stacy Smith, founder of the Annenberg Inclusion Initiative, said in a press release Tuesday. The decision to cast Native American men and women “is clearly a departure from the patterns of erasure and invisibility that are often the norm in this community,” she added.
Native American leaders have been calling for better and more frequent representation of their communities in films for years. The Annenberg Inclusion Initiative report says more needs to be done to increase the number of Native Americans both in front of and behind the camera. Gladstone’s co-star Leonardo DiCaprio made similar comments when interviewed by Gladstone about the film British Vogue earlier this year.
“We have to do more,” DiCaprio said in the interview, which was conducted before the strike between the Screen Actors Guild and the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (SAG-AFTRA) began over the summer. “The more truthfully these stories can be told, the more healing can occur.”
The ongoing actors’ strike is affecting the promotional efforts of several Hollywood films including Flower Moon Killer. Actors like Gladstone are unable to promote their projects while negotiations continue due to union rules.
Newsweek SAG-AFTRA emailed for comment Wednesday.