Review: "The Exiles," a 1961 Film About Indians in Los Angeles

Tommy Reynolds in the 1961 film by Kent Mackenzie about a group of young Native Americans living on the margins of Los Angeles.
Tommy Reynolds in the 1961 film by Kent Mackenzie about a group of young Native Americans living on the margins of Los Angeles. (Milestone Films)
By Ann Hornaday
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 28, 2008

"The Exiles," a 1961 film about a group of young Native Americans living in downtown Los Angeles, opens with a montage of portraits by the photographer Edward Sheriff Curtis. It's an apt setup for the film that follows. Like Curtis, director Kent Mackenzie proves to be a canny alchemist of fact and fiction, producing a visually stunning representation of his subjects even while distorting them, fixing them in their own mythic moment. That moment, as it happens, is very much like the one Curtis sought to capture: the break between a noble past and a dispossessed present.

So viewers are hereby cautioned to greet with skepticism Mackenzie's introduction to "The Exiles," which he calls "an authentic account" of the lives of its subjects. But seen through the lens of critical distance, this film succeeds not only as a captivating example of bold cinematic imagination, but also as a glittering urban artifact, a rich record of a Los Angeles that has long since disappeared.

Mackenzie was a film student at the University of Southern California in the 1950s when he befriended a group of Native Americans in L.A.'s Bunker Hill neighborhood. After years of hanging out and earning their trust, he persuaded a few of them to talk about their lives, and to reenact some of the events they talked about.

"The Exiles," which was never released theatrically and has been rescued from orphanhood by restorers at UCLA and the heroic distributor Milestone Films, traces 12 hours in the lives of Yvonne Williams, Homer Nish and Tommy Reynolds. Together with their friends and downtown L.A. neighbors, they struggle with poverty, displacement, alcoholism and other ills on the margins of a city that remains resolutely indifferent even as it beckons.

The film begins by focusing on the pregnant Yvonne, by far the most sympathetic character, as she wanders through an enormous food market. In a separately recorded narration, she speaks about leaving her reservation to realize her dreams in L.A., while she dejectedly gazes on delicacies she can't afford.

Back at her apartment, she cooks pork chops for Homer, Tommy and their buddies, who sit around reading comic books. At that point, Mackenzie picks up the men's story, as they hit the city's bars, get drunk, pick up some girls and carouse through the night, culminating in a dramatic after-hours party on "Hill X," overlooking L.A.'s dazzling downtown.

"The Exiles" presents a decidedly depressing portrait of its subjects, with the women almost uniformly portrayed as passive victims, the men as users and drunks. When dawn breaks over Hill X, what seemed by night a benign, even beguiling future looks desiccated and dreary.

Throughout "The Exiles," the air of hopelessness finds counterbalance in the film's lyrical production values, including by turns gritty and velvety black-and-white cinematography and a throbbing soundtrack provided by the 1960s surf band the Revels. (Their seductive, slightly menacing sound is put to particularly good use in an explosive bar scene, in which Homer becomes increasingly agitated by the presence of two gay men.)

"The Exiles" deserves a place alongside "Chinatown" and Charles Burnett's "Killer of Sheep" as one of the all-time great films about Los Angeles (Burnett, incidentally, is credited as a "co-presenter" of the film, along with Sherman Alexie).

Bunker Hill has ceased to exist, now dominated by such corporate-cultural behemoths as the Walt Disney Concert Hall. But in "The Exiles," the neighborhood of John Fante and Charles Bukowski is still visible in all its seedy glory, from its bars and arcades to the old funicular railway called Angels Flight. A fascinating hybrid of art and life, "The Exiles" may not hew faithfully to literal truth, but nonetheless conveys a form of artistic and experiential honesty that is inescapable. It's a mesmerizing marriage of poetry and prose.

The Exiles (72 minutes) will be shown at the National Gallery of Art today at 1 p.m. and 3 p.m. and tomorrow at 1 p.m. It is not rated, and contains scenes of drinking and fighting.

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