More Snakes Than Blooms In 'The Garden'

Kati Lopez i

Greening The City: Community gardener Kati Lopez carries fresh corn leaves. Oscilloscope Laboratories hide caption

itoggle caption Oscilloscope Laboratories
Kati Lopez

Greening The City: Community gardener Kati Lopez carries fresh corn leaves.

Oscilloscope Laboratories

The Garden

  • Director: Scott Hamilton Kennedy
  • Genre: Documentary
  • Running Time: 80 minutes

Unrated

Man in Hat i

Urban Bounty: A local shows off his produce from the community garden. Oscilloscope Laboratories hide caption

itoggle caption Oscilloscope Laboratories
Man in Hat

Urban Bounty: A local shows off his produce from the community garden.

Oscilloscope Laboratories

What's not to like about a film that takes up the cause of impoverished Latinos trying to keep their community garden from being snatched by greedy fat cats and maneuvering pols? Quite a lot, as it turns out. Less a documentary than a strategically angled appeal to populist sympathy, Scott Hamilton Kennedy's Oscar-nominated The Garden is a deceptively quiet film that nonetheless takes its cue from the Michael Moore school of personalizing political differences and demonizing the powerful, while condescending to the powerless by painting them as humble salt-of-the-earth types in need of external help to help themselves.

That's unfortunate, given that the movie has enough right on its side to render its trickier elisions unnecessary. Founded by the Los Angeles urban-renewal activist Doris Bloch in an attempt to heal the racial hostilities that boiled over in the city's 1992 riots, the 14-acre community garden in south central L.A. offers, in Kennedy's footage, a beguiling bounty of organic fruits and vegetables that sustained its mostly poor Latino growers and beautified an otherwise arid landscape of inner-city blight.

The fact that the tiny lots were grown on contested land owned by real-estate developer Ralph Horowitz and coveted by the City Council turned the community garden into a hot spot that, far from closing the class and racial wounds of Los Angeles, tore them wide open and poured in the salt. Kennedy adroitly shows how the farmers, threatened with eviction, became a political football kicked around not only by Horowitz and the council, but by African-American activists who wanted the land for their own projects.

Add to that internal divisions among the Latino organizers and the arrival of liberal celebrities like Danny Glover, Martin Sheen, Joan Baez and Daryl Hannah — who is caught by Kennedy's cameras flirting with an elderly Latino farmer who offers her sunflowers — and you get a big political mess.

From here on in, it's agitprop most of the way. For all his scrupulous attention to the many players in this escalating conflict, Kennedy (who also made the well-received documentary OT: Our Town, about a play staged in the inner-city area of Compton) is far from an impartial observer. The black activists are shown as enraged or devious manipulators of local politics. Kennedy brings up accusations of anti-Semitic sentiment among the Latinos toward Horowitz, then tosses them away in a brief pro forma denial by their leader, followed by carefully selected recordings of the developer complaining that the farmers showed insufficient gratitude at being allowed to use his land.

The movie ends with a shot of the land, bulldozed back into ugliness and apparently lying fallow. In fact, the plot continues to thicken: Horowitz is currently developing the lot for use as a warehouse by the clothing chain Forever 21, which happens to have ties to Antonio Villaraigosa, who pops in and out of The Garden seeking photo opportunities as a mayoral candidate, then washes his hands of the whole affair once he's elected. But it's also true that the chain would provide much-needed jobs in a town with one of the highest unemployment rates in the United States.

"What are we without our land?" asks one of the farmers toward the end of this moving, exasperating film. One feels for him, but at least one possible answer to his question might be, "Fully employed."

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