When the four Los Angeles police officers accused of beating Rodney King were acquitted in 1992, riots broke out in the city. The mad violence was concentrated in South Central.
Two years later, the city offered a salve to the inner-city, immigrant neighborhood. Fourteen acres of blighted city property in the middle of downtown were set aside for use as a community garden.
For a decade, low-income minorities grew food for their families in what was the country’s largest such project. In 2004, though, those 350 families were given an eviction notice. In a closed-door session, the city had reached a settlement with developer Ralph Horowitz allowing him to buy back the property. The city had paid him $5 million in 1986, grabbing it under eminent domain for use as a trash incinerator, never built because of community outrage. The farmers transformed the wasteland into something useful, and their decade of hard work was about to be bulldozed.
Their fierce fight against the city and the developer is well documented in Scott Hamilton Kennedy’s fascinating film “The Garden,” which won the Sterling Award for best U.S. feature at Silverdocs and an Oscar nomination. What might seem like a simple story of a landlord having the right to do what he pleases with his property turns out to be a complicated case of backroom dealings, racial tensions and the question of just who represents a community.
You could spend the first part of this documentary feeling a bit sorry, but not too much, for the South Central Farmers. After all, a landlord has rights as much as responsibilities. The city’s secret deal, in concert with a seemingly shady community group, soon switches our sympathies, though.
The head of that group is black; most of the farmers are Latino; the developer is Jewish. What seemed a simple business decision thus becomes a symbol of South Central’s long-simmering resentments. At one point, Mr. Horowitz says he’ll sell the farmers the land — for three times what he paid. He changes his mind, claiming the farmers are anti-Semitic: “Even if they raised $100 million, this group could not buy this property. It’s not about money. It’s about I don’t like their cause and I don’t like their conduct.”
It’s easy to tell what side the filmmaker takes, which leads to unanswered questions. We see garden leaders taking away plots from farmers who have worked there for years, but we never find out why.
Mr. Kennedy’s compelling documentary is quite thorough otherwise. He manages to get his camera into courtroom proceedings, the result of which I won’t reveal here. He records the near-riots that broke out when police and protesters clashed. He shows the famous faces that lobbied on behalf of the farmers — Daryl Hannah seems to be living there at one point, while a singer gets on the phone, saying, “Hola, Mr. Mayor. This is Joan Baez calling from the garden.”
“The Garden” shows how the American dream can go awry when it clashes with the American way of doing politics.
TITLE: “The Garden”
RATING: Not rated (some language)
CREDITS: Directed by Scott Hamilton Kennedy
RUNNING TIME: 80 minutes
WEB SITE: thegardenmovie.com