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). British-born filmmaker Kent Mackenzie (1930-80) had both 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 living in Los Angeles.
Writer and director Mackenzie wasn't a documentarian in the way that term'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 nonprofessionals 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 mind-set. As the pregnant Yvonne (Yvonne Williams) shops at the Grand Central Market, her voiceover reveals the kind of aspirations she had before arriving in Los Angeles, 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.
The Exiles continues to switch 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 in 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 remarkable cohesive, a glorious black-and-white document of the first Americans that shows what it really means to go off the reservation.
Showing at the Detroit Film Theatre (inside the DIA, 5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit) at 7 p.m. on Friday, Sept. 19, and Saturday, Sept. 20, and at 4 p.m. on Sunday, Sept. 21. Call 313-833-3237.
Serena Donadoni writes about film and culture for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].