Bunker Hill is gone. The East Los Angeles neighborhood, once lined with Victorian mansions, first became a ghetto. Then, in the name of progress, it was razed. And then it was forgotten.
In a way, Kent MacKenzie’s 1961 film, The Exiles, about several young Native Americans lives’ over the course of an evening in Bunker Hill, suffered a similar fate. That is, until recently.
MacKenzie, who already made a short documentary about the planned demolition of Bunker Hill when he was a University of California film student, filmed The Exiles between 1958 and 1961 on an exceptionally minute budget. Much of it was shot on “short ends”—the leftover scraps from 1,000-foot rolls thrown away by major studios.
Still, MacKenzie was able to premier The Exiles at the Venice Film Festival, where it was lauded by critics but, tragically, never picked up for distribution. It was, for all intents and purposes, lost. In 1980, MacKenzie died.
Cut to 2004. Critic and filmmaker Thom Anderson’s acclaimed compilation documentary, Los Angeles Plays Itself, about the use of LA neighborhoods in film, resurrected a segment of The Exiles and, in so doing, revivified an interest in the forgotten film. It has since been restored, re-hailed as a masterwork and in July it premiered in New York.
The Exiles is being referred to as a documentary, but it isn’t exactly that. The film is built around interviews MacKenzie conducted with the main characters—interviews that serve as meandering inner-monologue voice-overs in the film. MacKenzie directs the non-actors, who play themselves, in a scripted but highly naturalistic series of scenes meant to portray one evening and the subsequent morning.
The central figures are Yvonne, Homer and Tommy. Yvonne (Yvonne Williams), a pregnant woman with a blank stare punctuated by two dark, harrowed eyes, either wanders the streets eerily entranced or tries to please her husband, Homer, during the brief moments when he’s home. Homer (Homer Nish), a pudgy, vacant and detached man bedecked in a deflated pompadour, spends most of his time with his friend Tommy (Tom Reynolds), a Dionysian lothario sleazebag who, at one point, makes a lethargic attempt at rape. Homer and Tommy drink, drive (which includes a stop for 27-cents-a-gallon gas), pick up girls, fight and, in the wee hours, join an all-Native party on a plateau overlooking the city lights. The heart of the party is traditional drumming and tribal songs, but the periphery is beset by even more drinking and violence.
What emerges from these scenes isn’t just one of the most un-romanticized portraits of urban American Indian life ever put to film. It’s one of the bleakest portraits of any sort of American life ever put to film. Shot in a super high-contrast mix of blaring whites and, especially, painfully enveloping blacks, The Exiles is a nauseating docu-dream of nihilism, alienation and masked despair. It is also an obvious exposé—made particularly obvious because of the compacted, violent history of Native peoples relocated to urban settings—of urban culture at large: people consumerized; people medicated; people severed from nature, from history and from the larger systems of meaning and interpretations that give them a sense of place and connection.
For an idea of what The Exiles feels like—and its level of Angelino alienation—imagine Nathanael West’s short novel The Day of the Locust by way of Charles Burnett’s masterpiece film about the LA neighborhood of Watts, Killer of Sheep.
Yvonne’s full womb—and the knowledge that things lost can be found again—are the exiles’ rare loci of hope.
Written and Directed by Kent MacKenzie
With Homer Nish, Yvonne Williams and Tom Reynolds
72 min., NR