I find it hard to imagine that Charles Burnett, the director of Killer of Sheep was unaware of The Exiles, it’s prototype. And when The Exiles was redistributed decades after its release, Burnett was part of the project. Burnett’s film is the moving saga of poor Los Angeles blacks struggling and coping with their surroundings. The Exiles tells the tale of one evening in the lives of poor Los Angeles Native Americans. Both movies were financed by UCLA and were made by LA film students. Killer of Sheep could easily have been titled The Exiles as they both weave stories of isolation and disenfranchisement. The Exiles focuses on three Native Americans, Yvonne and Homer, husband and wife, and Homer’s rowdy buddy Tommy. Yvonne doesn’t have but a few lines of spoken dialogue, given mostly to a female friend, she interacts almost none with Homer, but she is constantly thinking as we hear through voice over. She spells out the modest things that she wants, mainly to give her unborn baby things she never had. She bemoans Homer’s allegiance to the carouser Tommy and with sadness recounts how “In the evenings he drops me off, but he doesn’t pick me up when I want him to.” We see this, Homer and Tommy leave Yvonne at a movie and hit the town. We hear Homer and Tommy’s thoughts too. Homer is bitter and bored with his lot in life but Tommy is glad to be Tommy. “Normal people want to do the things that I do, but they can’t because of their normal lives.” He also says white people have it worse because they have more to worry about.
The most poignant moments in the movie center around Yvonne, when she leaves her movie to find no Homer waiting to take her home she walks around downtown looking into shops at things she’ll never afford. “I used to go to church,” she thinks, “and say my prayers, but it seemed like my prayers were never being answered, so now I hardly go to church, sometimes I don’t say my prayers.” Consider that the church and the prayers were introduced to her by the people disenfranchising her. This is a beautiful movie, shot in gorgeous black and white with a realism that hits like a drum. These are doomed people, who seem to realize it but do their best anyway. In a bar Tommy and a friend dance to a happy tune from the jukebox, the dance is fascinating, it’s performed without joy, but it isn’t unhappy, just out of place.