London-born Kent MacKenzie’s The Exiles begins with Edward S. Curtis photographs: the Native American Past. Cut to the present, on a Bunker Hill, Los Angeles street; through this shot, which initially appears to be another photograph, a trolley moves. This first, unexpected bit of motion establishes a tension with the preceding stasis, motionlessness: moving in time; frozen in time. Homing in on a community of young Native Americans, most of whom have moved off reservations, the film provides this glimpse in a café: the camera pans leftward across a group of seated patrons, and then moves rightward as, standing, one Native American, cornering her, presses another for a date. This passage again combines instances of motion and stasis, creating a tension between them. This isn’t haphazard; it is thematic, to the point.
In lustrous black and white, The Exiles covers a period of twelve hours, one Friday night and Saturday morning. Three of the characters provide stream-of-consciousness voiceover that they themselves wrote; all the “actors” play themselves. Yvonne’s partner, Homer, who routinely abandons her for a night on the town, drinks and doesn’t hold a job. Pregnancy, expectancy, possibility: “He might change when he sees the baby,” Yvonne tries to convince herself. “He does like children”—although her remark that Homer especially wants a boy introduces a note of uncertainty. Later, when we see Homer in a bar observing other patrons as sharply as MacKenzie observes people in the film, we think: Ah, Homer might have become a filmmaker, too.
On Hill X, the men end their day by beating tribal music on drums. At dawn they go home. Tomorrow will be the same. The men know they are not really “off the reservation,” and they also know they have no place else to go.*
* There are two additional matters I wish to point out that MacKenzie handles wonderfully well. One is a visual quotation from John Ford’s The Long Voyage Home (1940)—a shot that Ford himself refers to in They Were Expendable (1945): the group-walk through a dark street or tunnel that suffuses a moment in time with elegy. MacKenzie keeps his film moving so that the visual quotation is seamlessly absorbed by it. The other refers to the gender alliance among males at the gas station, where upon instruction from the guys outside the car the white attendant secures payment from the gal sitting alone in the car. This gal silently walks into the restroom in order to detach herself from the group, which leaves; this is her response to having had to pay. Here is the radical part: Before the carload of revelers leaves, and while the woman who paid is keeping inside the restroom until they do, the attendant pays back to the guys the change that the woman is due! In 1961, when the film (which was shot in 1958) was first shown, this would have qualified as a consciousness-raising moment.