The life and death of America’s largest urban farm makes for a rather ugly contemporary tale of race-on-race conflict, backroom political deals and questions about the viability of property rights in Scott Hamilton Kennedy’s blatantly partisan “The Garden.” More of an agitprop piece than reportage, doc promotes one side — the gardeners — in a battle over the once-thriving South Central Community Garden at 41st Street and Alameda, south of downtown Los Angeles, and demonizes the garden’s opponents. SilverDocs feature prize and strong reception at Los Angeles fest will secure further fest and tube interest.
Kennedy’s original title was “Tierra y libertad,” suggesting the militant, communitarian mood and predominantly Latino community that made up the garden and the battle over it, which seems a sure subject for a future Ken Loach film. Kennedy’s left-wing perspective is exactly in line with Loach’s, and anyone seen as disagreeing with the farmers — dissenters include the late Juanita Tate, whose environmental justice work in L.A. remains legendary — is viewed here in a remarkably negative and harsh manner.
So harsh, it should be noted, that during the pic’s first Los Angeles fest screening, a graphic stating that Tate died in 2004 elicited applause from some members of the audience.
Pic begins with a loving survey of the garden, whose workers grew everything from zucchini to bananas, cilantro to papayas. (Los Angeles Congresswoman Maxine Waters is later seen good-naturedly chiding the farmers for not growing traditional Southern and African-American foods like collard greens, underlining South Central’s brown-black divide.)
The 16-acre plot was formerly owned by Ralph Horowitz, who lost it to the city in 1986, and was the site of a proposed incineration plant that Tate and her Concerned Citizens of South Central, against long odds, successfully fought in the 1980s.
In the wake of the 1992 riots, the city granted the property to local Latino neighbors desiring to grow their own food. Through group initiative and some serious green thumbs, the once-barren plot quickly turned lush and fecund.
Kennedy (on camera and sound) follows the group and its battle against not only Horowitz, but also City Councilwoman Jan Perry and Tate’s Concerned Citizens, the latter of whom pushed for a community sports center (depicted as a sorry-looking soccer field).
It becomes clear that a more thorough, objective and serious journalistic approach was required once the story delves into the intricacies of the property’s murky history. As “The Garden” terms it, Horowitz may have never been the property’s legitimate owner, although this continues to be a hotly debated matter.
To the film’s detriment, Horowitz was either never contacted for an interview or refused an on-camera appearance with Kennedy. Whichever is the case, pic never articulates this cardinal journalistic point.
After depicting Horowitz in the most negative terms — with only a passing mention of reportedly anti-Semitic comments directed at him — pic grants him screen time only with a vid recording of his deposition during his court case against the growers. Tate, who did speak with Kennedy, is seen walking out when she apparently senses she’s not being fairly interviewed. Scene is edited in such a way to make the always opinionated Tate look unpleasant, even obnoxious.
To Kennedy’s credit, he observes an internal conflict among the growers (the details of which remain blurry) that illustrates how difficult it can be to keep a collective intact.
A last-minute effort by Hollywood celebs, including Daryl Hannah, Danny Glover and Rage Against the Machine’s Zak de la Rocha, and even a visit by Congressman Dennis Kucinich during his losing Democratic presidential campaign, draws local media but doesn’t finally win the day.
In the aftermath, with the property barren during pending legal appeals by the growers (and with Horowitz planning to build warehouses there), Juarez and some of her compadres are growing produce on a much bigger plot of land north of Los Angeles. Whether or not this can be seen as a victory is up to the viewer’s judgment — and biases.
It’s worth noting that Kennedy’s account fails to acknowledge other successful, though much smaller, urban gardens in the Los Angeles area, projects unencumbered by the political knots and tangles that bedeviled this one.