The Exiles is a remarkable cinematic find, as important in understanding an era and a people as I Am Cuba, another spectacular, insightful chronicle of a lost world (pre-Castro Havana). The British born filmmaker Kent Mackenzie (1930-80) had an astute eye and a strong social conscience, and the fusion of the two resulted in 1961’s The Exiles, a stunning example of social realism and aesthetic audacity, capturing 12 hours in the hardscrabble, hard-drinking lives of a group of Native Americans in Los Angeles.
Writer and director Mackenzie wasn’t a documentarian in the way that’s commonly defined today, he was in the mold of Robert Flaherty (Nanook of the North), who would create a portrait of a community by using native non-professionals to participate in a narrative that reflected their concerns. The Exiles captures the experiences of a close-knit band of American Indians who had grown up in small communities or on reservations, but chose to migrate to a metropolis, hoping to participate in the greater prospects of urban life.
Mackenzie opted for verisimilitude over cinéma vérité, and the result is an amazing portrait of a physical landscape and an internal mindset. As the pregnant Yvonne (Yvonne Williams) shops at the Grand Central Market, her voiceover reveals the kind of aspirations she had before arriving in L.A., and the resigned disappointment of her current existence. As she returns home to a cramped apartment, cooking for her neglectful husband Homer (Homer Nish) and his circle of self-involved friends, it’s clear that even if she did speak up, few around her would listen to her thoughts.
The Exiles switches from superficial conversations soaked in alcohol to the interior monologues of Yvonne, Homer, and the boisterous, outgoing Tommy (Tommy Reynolds) as they make their way through a tour of nocturnal L.A. From their Bunker Hill neighborhood of grand Victorian houses gone to seed and subdivided into low-rent hovels (home to novelist John Fante), to crowded bars full of career drunks that Charles Bukowski would be right at home with, to a convergence on Hill X overlooking the blanket of city lights below, where an impromptu tribal celebration results in not only cathartic music and dancing, but an intoxicated brawl.
Shot over a three-year period, The Exiles is remarkably cohesive despite its shoestring budget and sporadic shooting schedule, a glorious black and white document of the first Americans that demonstrates what it really means to go off the reservation.
Review by Serena Donadoni
Re-released on July 11, 2008 by Milestone Films
First published in the Metro Times.