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 V.17 No.47 | November 20 - 26, 2008 

Film Review

A Man Named Pearl

Flowery, feel-good documentary will definitely grow on you

“Now   that’s   a shrub!”
“Now that’s a shrub!”

A Man Named Pearl

Directed by Scott Galloway & Brent Pierson

One of the first rules of documentary filmmaking is: “Find a great subject.” Scott Galloway and Brent Pierson have certainly done that with their sunny-side up character study A Man Named Pearl.

Pearl Fryar has a simple résumé. For 36 years, he’s worked at a can factory in Bishopville, S.C. Back in 1976, this humble son of sharecroppers tried to buy a house in an all-white neighborhood. Neighbors balked at the idea, believing the stereotype that “Black people don’t keep up their yards.” Instead of getting angry, Pearl got to work. When he and his wife finally did secure a house, Pearl set himself a goal of being the first African-American to win Bishopville’s coveted “Yard of the Month” award. He did that, of course, and more.

Pearl has gone on to become something of a local legend. His yard is now a major tourist attraction—a three-acre fantasy land of shapely topiary rendered even more remarkable by the fact that the owner is entirely untrained in the horticultural arts and has rescued all of his plants from the trash pile of a local nursery.

Like the abstract shapes Pearl carves into his lush, green yard, A Man Named Pearl creates a lovely, free-form portrait with no heavy intent other than capturing the random beauty of life. One neighbor cheerfully admits Pearl is “a little off the hinge”—as his single-minded devotion to the topiary arts would seem to attest. But this film isn’t simply a snapshot of a quirky “outsider” artist.

The film isn’t really about one man’s triumph over adversity and racism, either. Pearl himself is the first to dismiss such high-mindedness. “In life you’re gonna have obstacles. The thing about it is, don’t let those obstacles determine where you go” is the extent of Pearl’s homespun philosophy.

A Man Named Pearl is more accurately about the impact one man can have on the world around him. In talking to Pearl’s wife, his son, his minister, his neighbors, the local chamber of commerce, professional gardeners, Japanese tourists and professors at the local college, one unifying theme emerges. Everybody in Bishopville loves them some Pearl Fryar. And he loves them right back.

With nothing more than a hedge clipper and a positive outlook on life, this deep-voiced Southern gentleman has transformed his community. His stylized shrubbery—Gaudí-like in its undulating geometry—attracts hundreds of tourists to tiny Bishopville. His hard-work ethic inspires children to reach for something more than their economic and educational background would seem to dictate. His unusual living medium has caused museums to re-evaluate traditional art forms. Hell, he’s even managed to infect his neighbors with the spirit of the green thumb.

A Man Named Pearl doesn’t look for some cosmic significance in Pearl’s work. It doesn’t dig deep into his past to determine what gave birth to such obsessive expression. If Mr. Fryar has a dark, conflicted side, you’re not gonna see it here. Nor should you. This is an unabashedly feel-good film about doing what you love and loving what you do. It’s about art, spirituality and a long-lost thing called civic pride. You may not learn anything earthshattering, but A Man Named Pearl will have you grinning for days to come. If nothing else, it will give you a serious urge to rake up those stray leaves in your front yard.


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