The re-release (thanks in large part to the National Film Preservation Foundation) of this subtle, but still searing indictment of cultural genocide comes at a time when many other peoples are facing relocation, segregation or assimilation in various parts of the globe.
Writer/director/producer Kent Mackenzie’s message is as valuable today as in the early ‘60s. The opening montage of the weathered faces from a proud Indian nation is a spectacular silent homage to what has been lost since the advent of reservations. With dim prospects in what was left of the land of their forbearers, thousands of Indian youth opted to try their luck at the American dream in large centres such as Los Angeles.
On the outside, sporting Brylcreem-slicked hair and curly permanents as well as the latest in mainstream fashion (in one case making twelve payments to purchase a gaudy sports coat), the displaced souls looked modern enough, but their inner spirits weren’t faring nearly as well.
Claudine (Clydean Parker) chose to try the New World following the death of her mother. Pregnant with her first child, she travels miles further away from the fantasy of a fancy church wedding, loving husband and four happy/healthy children. As the film opens she’s in the crowded public market (everything weighed and wrapped on the spot) and, with The Rebels blaring away on “Tough Breaks” (the music selections reinforce the subtext with every juke box platter—dancing to a different drummer finds its climax at the everything-Indian-goes nightcap on Hill X), she allows that she wants her child “to be raised here, learn English and get an education.”
Husband Homer (Homer Nish) is already a career alcoholic whose idea of excitement comes from brawling at the local bars after draining gallons of Lucky Lager (another fine choice of set dressing as is the neon “Gloria” sign burning dully in the background while Claudine admits she’s lost her religious faith, but doubts she’ll start in boozing with the rest of her kin).
On the Friday night that is chronicled, Homer drops his long-suffering wife at an all-night cinema and, in the company of roommates and friends, heads out to drink another failed week into a permanently blurred memory.
From there, Mackenzie weaves together a quilt of determined despair that visits a poker game, drunken rides through the streets of L.A. (with a notable gas fill-up where the only moderately-sober one of the gang is abandoned after taking too long to “freshen up”). Perhaps the most memorable moment comes as Homer reads a letter from home, waiting for buddy Rico (Rico Rodriguez) to purchase a jug of hooch for the card game to come. Hoping for some extra cash from the Arizona shack that is his family’s current home, there is only a picture enclosed with the latest news. It’s a Kodak snap of his dejected, worn-out looking parents that sums up their plight in a single frame. To bring the point home even further, the camera (stellar work from Erik Daarstad, Robert Kaufman, John Arthur Merrill) dissolves to the arid land where the looming mountains dwarf the inhabitants who once roamed freely, following Nature’s seasons as they lived, they farmed and hunted to survive. Like the relentless life that is now his, Homer’s father repeats a tribal song ad infinitum, just as his drunken offspring will do when their empty night winds down.
The “acting” in this powerful film is most certainly informed by actual circumstance. While cautioned at the beginning that this is a representation of some and not all Indians struggling to make a living/loving in the City of Angels, there’s more than enough moments of truth to, yet again, feel the white man’s shame. JWR