Released in 1961, The Exiles follows a day in the life of a group of Indigenous migrants—Yvonne, the lead, Homer, her onscreen partner, and their friends Mary, Claudine, Cliff, and Tommy—as they drink, shop, sing, fight, and wander the spaces of Yaanga, the Gabrielino-Tongva village which is currently occupied by downtown Los Angeles.1 The Exiles was written and directed by Kent Mackenzie, a relatively unknown white male British filmmaker, who was then a graduate student in film production at the University of Southern California.
In a voiceover that opens the film, Mackenzie declares The Exiles to be "an authentic account of twelve hours in the lives of a group of Indians who have come to Los Angeles. . . . It reflects a life that is not true of all Indians today, but typical of many." In his master's thesis, however, Mackenzie, a self-described "auteur," recounts a directorial method that is anything but authentic: "If the action . . . developing in front of the camera ever seemed to me to be getting too 'dramatic' . . . or if in any way the scene appeared to be taking on an obvious formal structure," he wrote, "I would actually blow the scene apart by working with the Indians [as he always called them], to make the action more pointless and the dialog [sic] less coherent. . . . I felt that this was a large part of the quality of their lives and wanted the scenes to reflect this in every way" (A Description and Examination 42). These two statements—one detailing Mackenzie's actual production methods and written for his thesis readers, the other for cinema viewing publics—index the latent tensions between [End Page 75] reality, filmic capture, and representation at the heart of a film often misread throughout its cultural life as a documentary or accurate historical text. The statements also reveal the ways Mackenzie apprehended and then animated Indigenous life in order to create The Exiles. In his eyes, Indigenous life was defined by pointless incoherence. In this essay, I consider the Indigenous figurations Mackenzie conjured onscreen alongside the textual renderings of Indigenous life and of his own filmic practice that he detailed in his critically neglected master's thesis.
The Exiles has been celebrated by critics and independent cinema viewing publics as a unique visual record of so-called urban American Indian life during the mid-twentieth century.2 The film features an almost entirely Native cast, comprised of nonactors, who are for the majority of the film located in the urban spaces of occupied Yaanga, rather than the rural spaces of the desert Southwest and Great Plains typically cathected to filmic Indigenous bodies. On the surface, the Native cast appears to be figured outside the stereotypical Indian roles of the genre Westerns of the period. However, this spatial and temporal recasting is misleading. I argue The Exiles merely reworked tropes of Indigenous abjection drawn from colonial common sense and regimes of settler sexuality and mapped them onto the exemplary colonial geographies of the settler metropolis.
The Exiles was in part rediscovered through settler colonial nostalgia for the film's representations of the "lost" spaces of Bunker Hill, the once multiracial low-income neighborhood carved out of occupied Yaanga that was leveled by colonial "urban renewal" programs of the early post–World War II era. For instance, Thom Andersen's 2003 documentary Los Angeles Plays Itself emphasizes The Exiles' representations of the remade spaces of downtown, while only briefly noting the filmic Indian lives ("The Exiles Press Kit" 4). Following the renewed interest in the film, the ucla Film and Television Archive, the usc Moving Image Archive, and Milestone Films collaborated to restore and rerelease the film onto dvd in 2008. Milestone Films approached Indigenous author and filmmaker Sherman Alexie and African American filmmaker Charles Burnett to "present" The Exiles to the public ("The Exiles Press Kit" 2). Upon [End Page 76] its rerelease, the film received positive reviews, with mainstream media often misreading the film as a documentary. Indian Country Today was one of the few venues to publish more critical responses.3 The Exiles continues to have an enduring cultural and social life...