‘The Exiles’: an appreciation

Rob Schmidt, Today correspondent
1/29/09

LOS ANGELES – By now you may have heard the hype surrounding the film “The Exiles.” How Kent Mackenzie made the 1961 docudrama about displaced Indians before dying prematurely. How the black-and-white film was forgotten, found and restored by UCLA’s Film and Television Archive. How writer Sherman Alexie has championed it as a realistic portrayal of urban Indians.

For once a movie lives up to the hype. “The Exiles” is arguably one of the greatest films ever by or about Native people.

“The Exiles” begins with a series of Edward S. Curtis photographs – but not the usual romantic shots of chiefs on horseback. Most are close-ups of weathered faces and wary eyes. These portraits remind us that Indians are individuals – that each one has a life to share and a story to tell.

A narrator (Mackenzie) sets the stage, hinting at the decades of tribal terminations and relocation programs. “A new generation wandered into the cities. What follows is the authentic account of 12 hours in the lives of a group of Indians who have come to Los Angeles, California. It reflects a life that is not true of all Indians today, but is typical of many.”

As if he were thinking of future audiences, Mackenzie expertly inserts us into the bygone era of 1960s L.A. Angels Flight, a defunct “funicular railway” on Bunker Hill, takes us down to street level. There we stroll through Grand Central Market, where vendors sell mackerel for 21 cents a pound and potatoes for 25 cents a pound.

Yvonne, Tommy and Homer


We segue to a nearby apartment where an Indian woman cooks for a bunch of layabout Indian men. Here we meet our main characters: long-suffering Yvonne, easy-going Homer and hipster Tommy. Alternating between revelry and reverie, they’ll guide us through an evening of bright lights in the big city.

Left alone, Yvonne goes to an all-night theater and window shops for luxuries she can’t afford. She’s secretly pregnant with Homer’s child, which she hopes will spur him to settle down, get a job and take care of her. She desperately dreams of having a church wedding, a nice house, children.

“In the future, those who are interested in the American motion picture, are likely to refer to 1961 not in terms of the big Hollywood productions, but as the year of ‘The Exiles’ and ‘Sunday.’”
– Pauline Kael


Tommy and a friend take two women on a joyride. He claims everyone envies his endless “merry-go-round” of partying, but he’s clearly going nowhere. Tellingly, he compares his carefree life to a jail sentence. “It’s just like doing time,” he thinks. “And I can do the time.”

But the heart of “The Exiles” is Homer. Beneath his placid exterior, he’s full of restless energy. He heads off to play cards, grows bored and enters a bar alone. The noisy patrons annoy him and he almost starts a fight. Outside, he stares at the cops who patrol the street and roust disorderly Indians.

We don’t learn much about Yvonne or Tommy’s past, but Homer tells us a little of his background. He grew up in a small Arizona town where tourists gawked at him; he dropped out of high school because he thought he was smarter than everyone. He joined the Navy, was discharged, started hanging out and drinking.

Reactions to ‘The Exiles’


The critics have raved about Kent Mackenzie’s semi-documentary.
 
“‘The Exiles’ has been hailed as a landmark in American independent cinema, and called one of the most honest portrayals of contemporary Native American life ever filmed. Both those claims are verifiable,” wrote Noel Murray in The Onion.

“The character, cultural and historical values of ‘The Exiles’ would be enough for a dozen movies, but it’s also a mind-blowing formal achievement,” wrote Bob Strauss in LA CityBeat.

“This is just about the most gorgeous restoration of an American independent film I’ve ever seen,” wrote Jonathan Rosenbaum in Cinema Scope.

Throughout the movie the cinematography is spectacular. Many shots could be framed and hung like paintings in a museum. The restoration is also superb, with sharp, clear images. Only the slightly out-of-sync voices betray the moviemaking craft. (Mackenzie dubbed the voices in the studio.)

A couple of critics have complained that the drunken Indians are stereotypical. But of the three main characters, only Tommy is an outright drunk. More important, we see the emptiness that drives these Indians to drink. Without their roots, the culture they grew up with, they don’t know who they are. We can understand the drinkers even as we wish they’d change.

But “The Exiles” dispels other stereotypes. The Indians aren’t “angry warrior” or “wise shaman” types. They don’t wear leathers and feathers. They work, shop, play and pray just like everyone else.

Unnatural behavior?


The Curtis photographs at the beginning suggest another potential problem. Today we know Curtis staged many of his images. The behavior in “The Exiles” seems natural, but it was planned. Mackenzie talked to and researched his subjects for a year and a half. A camera crew accompanied the Indians as they wandered the streets. One source said eight percent of Mackenzie’s budget went to alcohol, which makes sense with the bar scenes.

How much of the behavior was genuine and how much of it was contrived? Were the Indians consciously or unconsciously playing to the camera? Did Mackenzie encourage their bad behavior by (in effect) paying them to drink?

At this point there’s no way of knowing. But astute audiences shouldn’t take the film at face value. They should think about how it was made as well as what it says.

Despite these caveats, “The Exiles” is special. How special? Well, the Oscar competition for Best Film in 1961 included “West Side Story” and “Judgment at Nuremberg.” “The Exiles” deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as these films. It’s truly one for the ages, and every fan of Native cinema should see it.

For more information on “The Exiles,” go to www.exilesfilm.com.



A letter from home triggers thoughts of what he’s missing: father singing in his Native language under a tree, mother and sister listening nearby, children running and laughing, a man on horseback crossing the starkly beautiful landscape.

Film doesn’t judge


The protagonists are dimly aware that they’re suffering, but “The Exiles” doesn’t blame racism or “the system” for their plight. At a gas station, the white attendant is polite to the carousing Indians. Meanwhile, the guys grab at the girls, calling one a “squaw” and abandoning the other in the bathroom.

The Indians pass by and through the oft-filmed 2nd Street Tunnel several times. It seems to be a metaphor for the uncertainty in their lives. Is it a dark hole with nothing ahead but a dead end? Or is there light at the end of the tunnel?

Eventually Tommy and Homer reunite on a hilltop above the glittering city. The night culminates in a bacchanal of boozing and brawling, drumming and dancing. The rootless Indians have come together as a makeshift tribe. At one point they break into traditional dances – the kind their ancestors have done for millennia.

Homer watches these tribal rites, perhaps thinking about what he’s lost. When Tommy slaps a girl for not putting out, Homer gives her a hand. There’s not much hope for Tommy, but maybe Homer will pull himself out of his aimless rut. Watching and waiting at home, maybe Yvonne will see her prayers answered.

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