Academic journal article The Geographical Review

Urban Spaces of American Indians in the Exiles

Academic journal article The Geographical Review

Urban Spaces of American Indians in the Exiles

Article excerpt

In their books, Mike Davis and Edward Soja represented Los Angeles as a place of continual invention, reinvention, and evolution into a major postmodern metropolis that is thoroughly engaged with a globalizing world (Davis 1990; Soja 1996). The roots of the city's change go back to the beginning of the twentieth century, but the major shifts have occurred since the end of World War II. The pace of change has been rapid and dramatic, as was the rise of the archetypal--some say defining--American suburb and the creation of a downtown of gleaming buildings that represents the booming economies of Los Angeles and the world beyond.

The process has not been seamless or fair, of course, especially in terms of neighborhood change. Racial and ethnic minorities have characteristically been forced to adapt to shifting circumstances, usually on short notice and primarily because of a lack of resources and power. This article is about a unique and almost totally ignored site, community, and brief moment in this dynamic process of urban change that can be found near the heart of present-day Los Angeles and about a 1961 film--a docudrama--that describes this place and time (Mackenzie 1961). The Exiles tells a nearly lost tale of an urban American Indian community that briefly existed in and around the city's Bunker Hill following World War II and chronicles its members' daily experiences.

Our concern is with American Indians in Los Angeles at an early and distinctive point of that community's development and with its representation in a uniquely powerful and original film. Our focus is on the ways in which individual experiences of daily living help to construct unique social spaces in an existing urban setting. The distinctive filmic lens within which the director approached his subject integrates neorealism and ethnography, thus providing a unique view of the social construction of urban spaces by members of this group.


Kent Mackenzie wrote, produced, and directed The Exiles, a low-budget film that was released in 1961. It paints an intimate portrait of American Indians who migrated from reservations of the U.S. Southwest to Los Angeles in the 195os. The film is black and white, the picture is grainy, the sound quality is poor, the dialogue is spare, the narrative genre is docudrama--and all of the actors are local American Indian migrants.

The film remained somewhat obscure until segments were included in the place-pastiche documentary film Los Angeles Plays Itself (Anderson 2003). But five years later The Exiles was rereleased as a DVD, complete with enhanced sound and visual qualities as well as commentary and supplemental material (Mackenzie 2008). This package offers insightful documentation, including interviews with the original cinematographers, original scripts, and references to Mackenzie's 1964 master's thesis, which is a rich description of the mechanics of and barriers to the film's construction and of his experiences within the community during the filming. That said, our assessment is of the original print on vHs and is not concerned with changes in the newer version, because we are interested in the value of the film as it stood for nearly half a century.

The Exiles focuses on three characters: Yvonne and Homer, who are married, and their friend Tommy. The narrative takes place over twelve hours on a Friday night and early Saturday morning in the general Bunker Hill neighborhood as they move through the spaces within which they and their community are inextricably integrated (Figure 1). The camera of The Exiles places the viewer in the position of observer by closely following each person over the time frame, switching back and forth between characters as they move from one place to another. Most of the conversations of the narrative are single-person voice-overs as each character tells his or her story; dialogues between individuals are less frequent but occasionally offer insight into the community. …

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