Before I start this review, I would like to make it clear that I believe in the importance of social history. Even setting aside present-day issues surrounding access to the media and who gets to tell their stories in public, I think there is real value in having people talk about their experiences before the worlds that spawned those experiences disappear for ever. Social history is a cornerstone of revolutionary praxis; by keeping a record of the past, we remind ourselves not only that the present might have been different but also that the future is not yet written. I believe in the absolute necessity of social history and yet I recognise that the process of collection and presentation can be intensely problematic.
Frank MacKenzie’s The Exiles is one of those films whose chequered commercial history winds up shining a rather unflattering light on the difference between a film finding an audience and a film disappearing without ever being shown in public. While production on the film may have ended in 1958, the film was first shown to the public in 1961 as part of the Venice film festival. Though relatively well-received at the time, the film seems to have generated little buzz and so The Exiles was never picked up for cinematic distribution and effectively sank without a trace. However, this changed in 2003 when Thom Andersen released Los Angeles Plays Itself, a feature-length critical essay about the history of Los Angeles in American film.
Though sadly not available in the UK, Los Angeles Plays Itself has been a hugely influential piece of criticism. The essay’s most notable success was the re-discovery of Charles Burnett’s Killer of Sheep, a magnificently dream-like film about the plight of African Americans who left the South for California after World War II only to wind up living short and desperate lives in areas like Watts. Aside from being a fantastic film in its own right, Killer of Sheep is also an important piece of cultural history in so far as it is a film by an African American about what it was like growing up in a particular community at a particular time. While the film’s re-release predates stuff like Black Lives Matter, the brilliance of the work and the importance of the subject matter were enough to turn Killer of Sheep into something of an art house hit. Nearly a decade later, I don’t think it’s possible to talk seriously about the recent history of American film without mentioning the name Charles Burnett.
The decision to re-release The Exiles in 2008 can only be understood in terms of the influence of Los Angeles Plays Itself and the success of Killer of Sheep. Indeed, while Killer of Sheep provided us with an insight into what it was like to be a poor, black resident of Watts in the 1970s, The Exiles can be seen as an attempt to understand what it was like to be a poor, Native American resident of Bunker Hill in the late 1950s. I can totally see why people wanted to release The Exiles and why they might have thought it was another Killer of Sheep but while Killer of Sheep is beautiful, insightful, and created by a member of the marginalised group the film purports to be about, The Exiles is tedious, lacking in insight and made by a bloke from Hampstead. The Exiles is not just problematic, it’s also a real wasted opportunity and a reminder that diversity must exist at the level of production not just subject matter. Blokes from Hampstead should not be speaking for people whose parents would have grown up with memories of events like Wounded Knee.
Kent MacKenzie was born in Hampstead in the London borough of Camden, his mother was English and his father was a respected American war reporter who had moved to London in order to head up the local bureau of the Associated Press. MacKenzie began his education at an English public school before the outbreak of World War II saw him transfer to a grammar school in upstate New York before matriculating at Dartmouth College. One summer, MacKenzie took a job teaching tennis at a New England summer camp where he happened to meet a man named Tom Two Arrows, who inspired him to take an interest in the problems facing Native Americans. This seed of an interest would bloom a number of years later when MacKenzie was studying film at the prestigious University of Southern California Cinema Department. Inspired by the creative non-fiction approaches of documentarians like Robert Flaherty and Humphrey Jennings, MacKenzie decided to produce a short film about an unfashionable corner of Los Angeles where poor and marginalised people rented cramped apartments in what had once been magnificent Victorian mansions. Once Bunker Hill 1956 was completed and MacKenzie graduated, he realised that his impression of the area had come out far more gentle than he had originally intended. Desperate to chronicle the lives of people who were about to be displaced by a wave of gentrification that would change the neighbourhood for ever, MacKenzie began production on a more ambitious project.
The 2008 BFI release of The Exiles comes with an engaging essay by Robert Koehler in which he describes the logistical challenges of pulling together a film with zero support, zero budget and zero ties to the community MacKenzie was attempting to chronicle. Given that MacKenzie wound up buying unused 16mm negative stock from larger productions in order to get his film finished, it is hard to disagree with Koehler’s assertion that MacKenzie really achieved something by managing to get this film made at all. In the late 1950s, nobody gave a shit about the residents of Bunker Hill, particularly seeing as many of those residents were Native Americans who had left their reservations in an attempt to make themselves a new life. To his eternal credit, MacKenzie sought these people out and asked them to speak about their day-to-day lives. Mackenzie recorded these interviews and inserted the non-professional actors’ words into what he must have seen as a careful recreation of a typical Saturday night in Bunker Hill. The problem is that Kent MacKenzie was not a resident of Bunker Hill and he certainly did not grow up on a reservation surrounded by people who had seen their entire way of life destroyed by the Westward expansion of the United States. In fact, given that The Exiles was made long before either the Civil Rights movement reached critical mass or the emergence of Native pride, MacKenzie would have struggled to gain even an abstract understanding of what it must have been like to grow up as a Native American in the 1920s and move to California in search of something better. Though undoubtedly well-intentioned, The Exiles is an outsider’s take on the experiences of a marginalised group and the resulting lack of authentic insight is evident in nearly every scene.
The film opens with images from the work of Edward S. Curtis, a 19th Century photographer who came to prominence thanks to a striking black-and-white photograph of Princess Angeline, the eldest daughter of Chief Seattle. Based on this picture, Curtis was hired by the robber baron financier J.P. Morgan to take pictures of Native Americans just as the American government made it impossible for them to pursue their traditional lifestyles. Curtis’ photography is gorgeous and MacKenzie clearly featured it in an effort to show how much Native Americans had changed in half a century but hindsight makes MacKenzie’s use of Curtis’ work more ambiguous. It’s not just that Native Americans have been forced to abandon their cultures; it’s that Native Americans have been forced to abandon their cultures and find new ways of living but white dudes are still around the turn their misery into something pretty.
The film begins revolving around Yvonne Williams, a Native American woman who shares an apartment with her husband Homer and a bunch of his friends. We see the pregnant Yvonne wandering through an LA market marvelling at the consumer items before heading home and struggling up the steps to the group’s tenement apartment. Inside, Homer smokes and drinks with his equally indolent friends. MacKenzie includes audio footage from an interview with Williams in which she talks about her lack of dreams beyond being a good wife (i.e. ironing Homer’s clothes on the off chance that he should want to go out on the town by himself) and a good mother (i.e. raising a kid who speaks English). Williams’ plight is made all the more poignant by MacKenzie’s decision to shoot her wandering the streets at night and visiting flea-pit cinemas all by herself.
As poignant as MacKenzie’s depiction of the long-suffering Williams may be, I could not help but wonder about the extent to which it reflected her actual thoughts and feelings. For example, Williams barely mentions her life on the reservation and shows no awareness of the systemic forces arrayed against her: She does not pine for family, she does not pine for her culture, all she wants to do is fit in and be a normal American. Admittedly this film was made 10 years before Native Americans were allowed the full protection of the US constitution and nearly a decade before an attempt was made to provide proper education for Native American children but how much of Williams’ shrunken horizons were due to racist propaganda and how much was due to the social awkwardness of having a white bloke from Hampstead stick a microphone in your face and ask for access to your innermost thoughts and feelings? The rise of Indian advocacy groups like AIM in the late 60s and the civil rights movement in general may have provided ordinary Native Americans with a vocabulary with which to express their dissatisfaction but the desire to not be seen as troublesome or ‘Other’ would also have encouraged women like Williams to stress their ‘normality’ at the price of identities grounded in race and culture. Had The Exiles been made by a Native American then this doubt would have been less persistent but the more I watched The Exiles, the more I became aware of the ways in which MacKenzie seemed to be aggressively framing the lives of his subjects.
As unflattering as the comparison may seem, the closest living relative to films like The Exiles is neither a fictional narrative like Killer of Sheep, nor a documentary like Stanley Nelson’s The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution: It is semi-fictional reality TV shows like The Only Way is Essex and Jersey Shore where people perform recreations of real and fictitious events from their day-to-day lives. The fictitiousness of The Exiles is particularly evident in the scenes where Williams seems to wander the streets alone at night, stopping only to catch a Western or a Douglas Sirk movie at her local flea pit. While I love the idea of Williams being a lonely cinephile, I am struck by the fact that having characters visit cinemas is quite a common means of eliciting empathy from cinema audiences. Sure… this woman might be the impoverished wife of a dishonest, philandering drunk and she may have grown up on a reservation surrounded by people old enough to remember the American government’s wars of genocide against the Native American peoples but look… she goes to the movies! She’s just like you!
My concern about how MacKenzie chooses to present the lives of his subjects grows more acute once we leave Williams and begin focussing upon Homer and his best friend Tommy. Homer and Tommy are intensely poor and completely lacking in any form education, with nothing to hope for and nothing to do, they spend their evenings in a diner where they drink, and drink, and drink until they can barely stand, at which point they start hassling women and trying to roll them either for sex, money, or both. McKenzie’s portrayal of Homer and his friends is utterly merciless but while contemporary audiences might be able to understand that their behaviour is a reaction to racism, alienation and wholesale immiseration, neither the characters nor the director seem willing to place this behaviour into any sort of exculpatory context. MacKenzie may have been aware that his actors were living up to the stereotype of the drunken old Indian but it simply did not occur to him to engage with these stereotypes with anything even approaching a critical sensibility.
In fairness, MacKenzie’s treatment of Homer stems from the fact that Homer thinks of himself as a fuck-up who went into the Navy in order to escape small town life only to wind up being spit out as a full-blown drunk. Homer manifestly blames himself for what he has become and MacKenzie’s reaction to this revelation is to turn Homer into a kind of tragic figure by cutting between images of life on the reservation and images of a shifty Homer sat in front of a liquor store.
To make matters worse, an excellent review by Amy Taubin over at Art Forum points out that the production notes accompanying the film’s cinematic release in 2008 claimed that 8% of the budget wound up being spent on alcohol. This leaves MacKenzie open to charges of exploitation as it looks as though he got his actors drunk and got them to perform for the camera. This too is reminiscent of contemporary reality TV where producers frequently control not only the flow of alcohol but also the flow of information in an effort to create some artificial drama. Given that many of these drunken shenanigans happen with a voice over describing how the characters will sometimes spend entire weeks drunk only to wake up in jail, you really have to question the ethics underpinning MacKenzie’s approach to the project.
The film ends with the characters moving from bar to bar before finally arriving at a party in the hills above LA. At first, the party seems like a welcome refuge from the moral decay of the city as people start breaking out the drums and chanting. However, as the night wears on, the bonhomie starts to disappear and merry drunken charting turns to ugly drunken fist-fights and attempted rapes. The party ends with the characters driving away and MacKenzie holds for a shot of the party site, now a dusty patch filled with nothing but rubbish as the city looms in the background, now less a pit of depravity than a bastion of civilisation to which the Native Americans are evidently ill-suited. The Exiles is a deeply problematic film that comes from an age in which white people thought little of appropriating the stories of marginalised groups in order to retell them without an ounce of sympathy or humanity. MacKenzie may have had his ups and downs but his background of public schools, prestigious universities, and well-connected parents in no way prepared him for making sense of a people who had been stripped of everything by a rapacious American state. MacKenzie was neither a sociologist nor an anthropologist and so he lacked the basic tools that might have allowed him to explain the images he chose to put on screen. Frankly, I can think of no more powerful an argument for the diversification of filmmaking: The Exiles could have allowed a marginalised group to speak for themselves but the systemic racism of the American film industry resulted in their story being told instead by a bloke from Hampstead.
It is perhaps fitting that The Exiles should have re-entered the cultural conversation off the back of a film about Los Angeles as it is only when MacKenzie allows the cameras to run that the film attains a level of elegance. This is a film that is eager to show us LA in the 1950s but without anything of consequence to say about the people who happened to live there.