Masterpiece “The Exiles” sees black and white light of day

Review By Sandra Hale Schulman
News From Indian Country 9-08

The Billy Wilder Theater in downtown Los Angeles was packed with an unusual mix of students, elder Natives, hipsters and a few famous faces (Wes Studi, Arigon Starr). The buzz was all about the premiere of “The Exiles,” a film by deceased director Kent Mackenzie that was made in 1961 but never released. Shot in stunning inky black and nuclear white, “The Exiles” is both a moving portrait of an outsider community and a cinematic time capsule of a storied Los Angeles neighborhood that no longer exists. It is a lost film about loss, made all the more poignant by the pathos of its modern truths.

When Homer (Nish) and Yvonne (Williams) leave their Apache Reservation to start a new life in LA’s Bunker Hill with scores of other Natives, they find only poverty and isolation awaiting them. Homer falls in with Tommy Reynolds, a wolfish Apache-Mexican party boy. With an eye to downtown’s gritty details – neon signs, anonymous alleys, peeling tenement halls – “The Exiles” chronicles a single night in the trio’s troubled search for a place to call home.

Bunker Hill was then a blighted neighborhood of decaying Victorian mansions, sometimes featured in the writings of Raymond Chandler and Charles Bukowski. The structure of the film is that of a narrative feature, the script was pieced together from interviews over a period of two years with the film’s non-professional subjects.

“The Exiles” did not find a distributor to release it theatrically in 1961, and so over the years it fell into obscurity, known to cinephiles but remaining largely unseen by the public. A restored version played the Berlin Film Festival in February 2008, and a U.S. commercial re-release by Milestone Film & Video has been playing in scattered U.S. cities.

The critic and historian Norman M. Klein has called Los Angeles “the most photographed and least remembered city in the world.” Given the truth of this, the restoration and long-delayed commercial release of a film about a largely forgotten corner of that deceptively bright city, is a welcome act of defiant remembrance.


Begun in the late 1950s in a long-gone area of downtown Los Angeles, “The Exiles” was a three-year-plus labor of love for its director, writer and producer, Kent Mackenzie. An East Coast émigré, Mr. Mackenzie (who died at 50 in 1980) studied film at the University of Southern California on the G.I. Bill. While in school he made a short about Bunker Hill, a storied, densely populated neighborhood near the City Hall that – before being razed in the name of urban renewal – was home to a rich diversity of retirees, far-flung immigrants and the transplanted American Indians who helped inspire “The Exiles.”

Mackenzie couldn’t shake the plight of the Indians who provided the spark for the film and voiced the tag-team narrative that carries its simple story from day to night to dawn. Mackenzie and his crew, many of them onetime fellow film students, supplied the rest, including the sumptuous black-and-white 35-millimeter cinematography. The upshot of their effort is a surreally beautifully slice of down-and-almost-out life, a near-heavenly vision of a near-hell that survived at the juncture of nonfiction and fiction. He tapped into the despair of this obscured world while also making room for the poetry and derelict beauty of its dilapidated buildings, neon signs, peeling walls and downcast faces.

The only slight misstep is the tacked on beginning that screens a series of photographs of Indigenous peoples in the first decades of the 20th century by Edward S. Curtis. Curtis’s photographs have been criticized for their nostalgia and sometimes romanticized relationship to the truth (he was known to remove traces of the modern world from his images). The story here is clear enough, and can be applied to any number of immigrants but they do set the film’s sober, almost funereal tone.

If the film followed this fatalistic vein, it would be more dead than alive. Instead Mackenzie takes his camera into the busy downtown streets where a pregnant Indian woman, Yvonne, is dreamily drifting through an open-air market, eyeing all the exotic, cruel, impersonal hustle. The camera follows her home to a cramped apartment packed with men, all of whom – her husband, Homer (Homer Nish), included – mostly ignore her, even after she fries them up some chops and beans.

The focus shifts to Homer, who, along with his good time Charlie friend Tommy (Tommy Reynolds), engages in some heavy barroom drinking, back room card games, and skirt-chasing mischief before finally joining a makeshift powwow in Chávez Ravine, another legendary and lost Los Angeles neighborhood from which Latino families were evicted in the late 1950s to make way for the Dodgers Stadium. There on the hill overlooking the lights of the city below, the group vainly attempts to dance and summon up a spirit of unity they can’t find in the bars, but it ends in a free-for-all dustup, drunken Indians with baggy pleated pants, slicked back pompadours, and broken cigarettes, lost tribes scattered in the City of Angels.

Several members of the original crew – now in their 70s and 80s – took to the stage after the screening. They spoke of how inexperienced they all were making the film 47 years ago, it’s $536 budget scraped together over two years, film stock borrowed from tail ends of larger productions.

Then they marveled at how they created a veritable masterpiece despite it all, inadvertently creating a cinema vérité – a style of documentary filmmaking, combining naturalistic techniques with stylized cinematic devices of editing and camerawork, staged set-ups, and the use of the camera to provoke subjects. In French the term means, roughly, “cinema of truth.” This was being created around the same time in France but none of the films had made it to U.S. shores. But for all the accolades and historical significance and technique, the film is, as the cinematographer, Robert Kaufman, said, “about alcoholics.” It also sees the beauty, even in the dark truth.

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