It’s no secret how the superior artistry and authenticity of small independent films always seem to upstage the multi-million dollar Hollywood productions during the awards seasons. But far less is known about the origins of this US indie movement running counter to the cookie cutter, hi-tech emphasis and aggressively marketed blockbusters. Back in the mid-twentieth century, it was daring regional, emotional truth-seeker filmmakers like John Cassavetes in NY and LA’s Charles Burnett who led the way. And then there was the lesser known Kent MacKenzie, and his 1961 groundbreaking classic about Native American urban alienation, The Exiles.
Unreleased for nearly a half century because no distributor was willing to take a chance on what was perceived as a subject of little commercial interest or value, The Exiles is now finally opening theatrically, following a restoration process at UCLA and a rousing debut at this year’s recent Berlin Film Festival. The release is also a co-presentation of Charles Burnett and acclaimed Native American author and filmmaker, Sherman Alexie.
The Exiles may be said to be about everything and nothing. This radically experimental fusion of drama and documentary is composed of a day in the life of the LA inner city Indian community of Bunker Hill back then. These young people have left their reservations in search of work, adventure and individual happiness – though none are sure exactly what that is, or if they’ll ever find it. Three of them emerge as the main characters, and their stories happen to also be about their own personal lives, told in dramatic form.
There’s Mary (Mary Donahue), a young, docile housewife full of hope, as she awaits the birth of her first child. Her husband Homer (Homer Nish) is unemployed with no prospects, and has taken to drinking and carousing around town all night with his friends, often leaving Mary at a move theater and forgetting to pick her up. Tommy (Tom Reynolds) is Homer’s drinking buddy, a brash party animal whose flamboyant revelry seems to mask his own bitterness, marginalization and internal exile along with other tribal outcasts, in a brutally unaccepting America.
The Exiles unfolds like an Edwin Hopper painting in motion as intimate noirish voiceover soliloquies of these three protagonists, alienated both from one another and the surrounding society. Destructive male bonding infuses dramatic vignettes that are graced with lost and found vintage sights, sounds and period doo wop music that lyrically chronicle a forgotten time.
This poetic slice of life conveys the terrible ravages of alcoholism. But also the way historical memory impacts upon the present, as these troubled youths converge on a hilltop overlooking LA just before dawn, distilling a sense of renewed euphoric collective power out of a vanishing past, by singing the enduring musical traditions of the old rez culture that binds them, back to life.