A Debt Repaid to an Extraordinary Man and Filmmaker: Kent Mackenzie’s “The Exiles”

I have a debt to repay.

In 1969, my senior year at South Hills High School in West Covina, California, I was introduced to a filmmaker named Kent Mackenzie. He was interviewing kids at my high school for a feature documentary about the struggles of being an adolescent. He asked me to be in it, but I was going off to college and couldn’t do it.

But Kent saw I was fascinated by film and he invited me to see his studio. If my memory serves me right, he worked out of Churchill Films in LA.  He  gave me a master class, and then showed me a film that he had made while a student at USC. It was called The Exiles. After that, he had me down a few more times and introduced me to the world of documentary film.  I have never made films, but I have lived and breathed and studied them for years.

It was one of the most unselfish things anyone has ever done for me. He shared his wisdom, but what remains unforgettable was his love for his craft. 

I never saw him again. Story over.

No, story not over. Not by a long shot.

Kent died, much too young, several years later.  But I was haunted by the film’s characters for years — poor Native Americans living in the small Los Angeles enclave of Bunker Hill who had come from impoverished reservations in the late 1950s. These were people neither here nor there, people at the margins of a society that didn’t even want to know what to do with exiles.  And LA was a city happily ridding itself of any unsightly enclaves it could find.   Kent’s exiles would be gone in several years.  But not before he told their story.

The Exiles is a brilliant combination of spontaneous verité and staged scenes.  It is rendered in a black and white film that had more colors and hues and shadows than Technicolor. What I didn’t know then was that this guy who had been so warm and helpful was a master cinematographer. And that he filmed it with a slew of other master cinematographers.

Almost 40 years pass.

And then, in 2003, Thom Andersen’s wonderful documentary “Los Angeles Plays Itself” was released. It included scenes from The Exiles.  Milestone Films, supported by producers Sherman Alexie and Charles Burnett (filmmaker of another quiet classic, Killer of Sheep), and in cooperation with USC’s film archivist Valarie Schwan, brought the film to preservationist Ross Lipman at the UCLA Film & Television Archive.

The result was that the restored version of The Exiles was released this past July to worldwide acclaim. Milestone Films is itself a gift to the film community, and its founders Dennis Doros and Amy Heller were also responsible for the release of Burnett’s Killer of Sheep. (Definitely check out their catalogue.)

The critical reaction was immediate:

The restoration and long-delayed commercial release of ‘THE EXILES,’ a 1961 film about a largely forgotten corner of that deceptively bright city, is nothing less than a welcome act of defiant remembrance… A beautifully photographed slice of down-and-almost-out life, a near-heavenly vision of a near-hell that Mr. Mackenzie situated at the juncture of nonfiction and fiction. He tapped into the despair of this obscured world while also making room for the poetry and derelict beauty of its dilapidated buildings, neon signs, peeling walls and downcast faces.”

—MANOHLA DARGIS, NEW YORK TIMES

“‘THE EXILES’ surely deserves a place in the history of American independents alongside  John Cassavettes’  ‘Shadows,’  but its cautious depiction of a situation rarely reported even today gives it a permanence that has held up over the decades.”

INDIEWIRE

In later years, film and literature would be packed with the themes of exile, of immigration, of emigration, of being lost in someone else’s world. But this was a time in Southern Calfornia when none of that messiness would be allowed to get in the way of a “Leave It To Beaver” and “Wonder Years” world. How could it when we were so busy tearing down the Chicano neighborhood of Chavez Ravine to build a baseball stadium?  

When suburbia was still ringed by shanty towns housing poor immigrant farm workers.  When the only ethnic celebrated in textbooks was Fr. Junipero Serra, whose claim to fame was the Calfornia missions, the conversion of thousands of Native Americans, and the introduction of disease and repressive policies responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Native Americans.

Out of sight, out of mind. The Southern California of Art Linkletter’s House Party couldn’t have cared less.

But now we can see the world Kent saw when others wouldn’t.

I hope you do.