The Exiles (1961) -Who Speaks For You?

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.

 

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Killer of Sheep (1978) — The Neorealist Equivalent of Conan’s Hat

One of the most enduring creation myths to emerge from late-20th Century popular culture is that of Los Angeles as a city built on bones. Robert Towne and Roman Polanski’s Chinatown tells of an incestuous white man who engineers water shortages in order to force poor farmers off their land and build new homes for middle-class families. Set a number of years later, James Ellroy’s LA Quartet provides Capital with an even more corrupt figurehead in the person of Dudley Smith, an OSS spymaster turned anti-Communist and White supremacist who uses his institutional power as chief of detectives to corner the local drugs trade in an effort to keep the city’s non-White population under control and away from the classy White neighbourhoods that Chinatown’s Noah Cross famously described as “the future”.

While American popular culture is often willing to recognise the racial character of the oppressive forces it seeks to catalogue, its viewpoint is invariably that of the White liberal onlooker rather than that of the explicitly oppressed. This is particularly evident in Robert Zemeckis’ Who Framed Roger Rabbit, a polymorphously problematic remake of Chinatown where California’s marginalised population is represented by a ghetto filled with a diverse population of cartoon characters who eke out a living on the margins of Hollywood and eagerly distance themselves from a villainous Judge Doom who acquired considerable power and money by passing himself off as a respectable White man. The film ends with the ‘toons bickering about whether Doom was actually a duck, a dog or a mouse because obviously no White man would ever stoop so low as to use institutional power to brutalise and immiserate the poor and dispossessed. Even Chinatown’s most famous line resonates with the privilege of being born White in a White supremacist state; Jake may be able to ‘forget it’ because it is Chinatown but the actual residents of Chinatown are forced to live with ‘it’ every day of their lives.

As Thom Andersen suggests in his peerless video essay Los Angeles Plays Itself, the American film industry has long proven reluctant to engage with the city of Los Angeles on its own terms and turn the camera over to the real victims of its emerging creation myth. Charles Burnett’s Killer of Sheep is one of only a few films to consider what it means to live in the town of Noah Cross and Dudley Smith.

 

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