This is another case in which I will dispense with the negatives first. Because if you track down this film – and you probably should – they will lead you to consider changing your mind and abandoning this film halfway through.
The Exiles is clearly and obviously an indie film by an inexperienced filmmaker, working with an inexperienced cast and crew. This is only Kent McKenzie’s second film; his first was a short-subject documentary he made during film school, which addressed a recent slum-clearance project launched in the Bunker Hill neighborhood of Los Angeles and how it impacted some of the longterm residents who would have to move. However, while he was working on that film, McKenzie met several Native Americans who lived in Bunker Hill; most of them young, broke, and outcasts. Instead of including them in his first film, McKenzie chose to make a second documentary just about them.
It’s not really clear whether this is meant to be a documentary or a drama, however; it’s more of an indie slice-of-life thing, in the style of John Cassavetes’ Shadows. There’s sort of a plot – we follow a small group of people, many of whom seem to know each other, as they pass a “typical” night in their lives. Occasionally we hear them speaking over the action, talking about their lives; one woman discusses how she wishes her husband would get a job, because she’s pregnant and wants their kid to do better; another discusses how he joined the Navy to get off “the rez” but ended up here in Los Angeles without much to do so he just stayed put when he got discharged. There’s also some dialogue in the film – but it’s half-assed and desultory, the kind of inconsequential stuff people say when there isn’t much to talk about. (It’s also very clearly dubbed in, suggesting that the original footage had bad sound quality and McKenzie had to drag everyone back.)
And it makes sense that there isn’t much for our cast to talk about because on this night, not much happens. The pregnant woman makes dinner for her husband and heads to a movie as the rest head for a bar. Another couple at the bar has a teasing debate about whether they should stay there or go dancing, and “going dancing” finally wins out – only when they stop at a gas station en route, he’s already too drunk to dance. A fight breaks out at another bar. One of the gang makes a detour back home to hit up his sister for money, helping himself to it while her family all stares listlessly at a TV program. Towards the end, as our movie-going lonely wife heads to stay with a friend, the others all gather on a hilltop for more drinking and dancing before stumbling home at dawn. Nothing much really happens; none of these people’s lives is ever going to really change.
That’s exactly the point, though.
The Exiles was made at a time when most people usually only saw “Indians” as supporting characters in John Wayne movies, either to be revered or fought; meanwhile, McKenzie was saying, here were some actual “Indians” right there living among them, and they were just regular people who weren’t getting anywhere near a fair shake. There’s no dramatic moment of finger-pointing or blame here; no one curses “the white man” for taking their land long ago, nor is there any kind of trumped-up conflict between white snobs and our cast. It’s pretty ordinary, and boring, but that’s the point, that our cast’s lives are also ordinary and boring, in a heartbreaking way.
McKenzie makes an unfortunate tiny bid to the “noble savage” stereotype right at the beginning, with an introduction featuring historic portraits of various nation’s chiefs and some by-now familiar scenes of Sioux on horseback standing beside tipis as he intones that our cast’s ancestors had once lived free on this land before “the white man” forced them into reservations, cutting them off from their old way of life and leaving this current generation uprooted and aimless. But this introduction is brief, and it’s the casts’ own words that stick more in the mind – the pregnant Yvonne saying that she’s happy she is going to have a child of her own, since it’s what she always wanted, but then admitting that “I used to pray for things in church back on the rez, but I never got them – and so I stopped, and I don’t even say my prayers any more now”. Or her husband Homer saying that sometimes he picks a fight in bars “because otherwise you’re just sitting there doing nothing”.
During its original release, The Exiles never got a truly fair shake either. It was part of the Venice Film Festival, but never got any kind of theatrical distribution; it was licensed only to be shown in schools. However, it had enough of an “underground” following – especially among other Native Americans hungry to see their lives represented accurately – that it helped fuel a cultural and activist movement in the late 60s and early 70s. The film itself fell off the public radar until the early 2000s, when another filmmaker used clips in a documentary of his own about Los Angeles depictions in film, Los Angeles Plays Itself. People were struck by this film they hadn’t heard about, and ultimately Spokane-Coeur d’Alene author Sherman Alexie backed an effort to restore McKenzie’s work and finally give it a theatrical release.