Simple in both construction and style, The Garden is the sort of no-frills, shot-on-video documentary that lets its subject speak for itself. Wise move, given the magnitude of the tale this Academy Award-nominated film chooses to tell. Initially, you’d think a story about a humble community garden wouldn’t be the source of much drama. Boy, would you be wrong.
Set in Los Angeles, the film traces the creation of the South Central Community Garden, an urban farm started in an abandoned lot in the wake of the game-changing L.A. riots. A grand total of 13 acres in the very shadow of Downtown L.A. were handed over to this project by the city, making it the largest community garden in the United States. The land was divided up and members of the surrounding neighborhood, a largely Hispanic enclave, were given plots to tend. Decades later, amid warehouses, dirt lots and other signs of urban blight, corn, beans, bananas and papayas flourish. It’s the very model of a successful inner city project.
But trouble is brewing. A shady back-room political deal has given the land—originally seized by the city under eminent domain—back to its original owner. An unapologetic, money-hungry developer, the new landlord immediately sets out to evict the poor subsistence farmers and convert the fertile land into a concrete plot covered in warehouses. The gripping, roller-coaster battle to save the South Central Community Garden from the bulldozers forms the backbone of the film.
The film is written and directed by Scott Hamilton Kennedy. (Let’s forgive him his brief résumé, which includes the direct-to-DVD cartoon Livin’ It Up With the Bratz.) Kennedy wisely keeps his mouth shut and his camera focused on the action unfolding before him. This story needs no editorial sweetening. You couldn’t ask for a better cast of characters to gather before your lens. For heroes, we’ve got hardworking farmers turned freedom-fighters like Tezo (who could be played by Jorge Garcia from “Lost” in the dramatization of this tale) and Rufino (who caps off a long line of tough, banner-waving Hispanic women). For villains, we’ve got some doozies. There’s the sleazy city councilwoman trading favors for power. There’s the turncoat community organizer looking to line her own pockets. And there’s that filthy-rich developer who almost earns points for his bald-faced, clear-spoken contempt for anything that doesn’t earn him millions.
The twists and turns, the victories and defeats littered throughout this story are worthy of the most inventive Hollywood screenwriter. The fight tumbles out from the back of the courtroom, through the secret meeting rooms of the city’s power elite and onto the front pages and evening newscasts, going from neighborhood scrap to cause célèbre. (Hey, there’s Daryl Hannah, Danny Glover and Zack de la Rocha of Rage Against the Machine!) It’s an invigorating tale of David vs. Goliath, and it’s rendered even more tense by some fractious infighting even among the good guys (who, might I remind you, are armed with machetes and pitchforks). Kudos to Kennedy for reminding us that no one (rich, poor, black, white, brown) is immune to the ravenous lure of greed.
It should come as no surprise, in this day and age, how venal and corrupt our political system really is. Nonetheless, a film like The Garden still has the power to shock us with how brazen our elected leaders can be in picking our pockets, making promises and then blowing us off immediately after the election. And even so, there’s something deeply inspiring in the idea that ordinary citizens are willing to challenge the status quo, to fight for what’s right and to give credence to the idea that government isn’t made up of our betters, but is composed of nothing more and nothing less than “We the People.”
Galvanized by this grassroots activism, The Garden issues an outright challenge to the old axiom, “You can’t fight city hall.” It may very well be that you can’t win against city hall, but you can always give ’em a hell of a brawl.
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