Every story like this has a cast of the usual suspects - heroes and villains, wildcards and unseen sources of inspiration. There’s always some injustice, a skewed sense of entitlement, decades of tradition, unforeseen circumstances and weeks of backroom finagling. In the end, one party looks like the devil, the others are demanding sainthood, and stuck somewhere in the middle is common sense, the truth, and a means of rational, realistic settlement. Yet as part of Scott Hamilton Kennedy’s mesmerizing, moving, and sometimes frustrating film The Garden, we see that ego, perception, and cold-blood calculation can rob of community of even its more prized, personal possession - and pride.
The story goes a little something like this: tired of seeing her neighborhood depressed and derelict, original founder Doris Bloch suggests that a 13 acre plot of land in the middle of LA’s 9th ward be turned into a neighborhood garden. Originally owned by Robert Horowitz, the city took the lots by eminent domain (and paid a cool $5 million) to house a garbage incinerator.
When local activist Juanita Tate defeated the plan, the property ended up in the hands of a mostly immigrant, largely Latino populace who put their desire to farm and cultivate the land to wondrous use. Now, over a decade after the Rodney King riots (which inspired the plan in the first place), Horowitz is back, and with the help of Tate, 9th District City Councilwoman Jan Perry, and a secret city deal, he has regained ownership - and he wants these “squatters” off his property pronto.
Thus begins the legal battles, the accusations, the slam dunk judicial proceedings, and the last minute mind-bogglers on both sides. Kennedy, who kind of ‘accidentally’ fell into this story, seems content to leave lots of unanswered questions and unexplored areas. For instance, we never really learn how Horowitz came into the property (there is an inference of inheritance), nor do we understand how he came to believe he was entitled to buy it back. Tate goes from high-minded organizer to angry, defensive subject of interest at the drop of a deposition. Perry, placed in a constituency that is at least 60% Hispanic, appears nonplused about ignoring their needs (she is African American). And the farmers, good people that they are, never explain how their ‘gift’ of property turned into a perceived birthright.
It’s all part of The Garden‘s many elusive charms - and occasional narrative hurdles. As someone sitting on the outside looking in, armed with a wealth of backseat driving deduction and maneuvers, it seems easy to second guess the efforts of all involved. When famed civil rights lawyer Dan Stormer steps in and appears to save the day, last minute, we finally find the cooler head that needs to prevail. But as with most of these stories, the injunction-provided reprieve is just that - a chance for both sides to regroup, reestablish their position, and go in for the finishing move.
The great thing about Kennedy’s vérité approach is that it lets both sides defend, and defuse, themselves. The various members of the land conspiracy come across as petty and focused on power. But the farmers are no better. They bicker. They bellyache. One memorable scene shows how a new desire to enforce existing rules on the property results in hurt feelings, infighting…and a machete attack.
Even more compelling is the role the media played in this case. At first, the farmers could barely get attention, a few reporters walking among the fields, getting the personal side of the story. But once celebrities like Joan Baez, Martin Sheen, Danny Glover, and Darryl Hannah make the South Central association their ‘personal’ cause, the cameras come out in droves. By the time they have pulled in newly elected Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, it looks like nothing can stop our disenfranchised heroes.
But this is Hollywood - or by indirect comparison, Los Angeles - and no story stops where it should. Indeed, The Garden moves beyond the feel good facet of any apparent ending to show how stark, stupid reality can rip said victory away. It won’t make sense - none of these ‘us vs. them’ situations ever do - but it does create compelling cinema.
Yet it’s the open-ended elements that linger…the accusations of kickbacks and self-interest (Tate and her son are chastised by California for a soccer field deal gone sour and are ordered to pay back huge sums of money they raised for the project), the suggestions that everyone except the farmers had a conniving, cash-on-the-barrelhead interest for making this deal work.
Perhaps most compelling is Horowitz desire to maintain his role as villain. After agreeing to sell the property back to the area for $5 million, he ups the price to $16 million. It then becomes a game of chicken, one he assumes the farmers would never be able to compete in. When he’s proven wrong, he pulls out the one remaining card he had - race. You can guess where things go from here.
Indeed, The Garden is very much centered on the “black vs. brown” dynamic spreading throughout Southern California. As the population becomes more and more Hispanic, as said Latinos organize and begin demanding more of the American Dream, those who’ve lived mired in the minority for decades are not happy about the advances the newcomers make. Many argue that Tate’s objection to the farmers was based on a two-fold subterfuge - to make money for herself and her own organization, and a desire to promote an African American agenda over all others. It seems unfair, but there is power in numbers. Tate represents less than 10% of the 9th District. The garden stands for more than half.
In the end, The Garden stands for sacrifice; the farmers who struggle to make a barren bit of land in South Central LA fertile and full of life; the organizers within, like Rufina Juárez, who must address modern social structure within a group used to rural tradition and trade-offs; the lawyers who believe they have right on their side; the politicians who need to balance the needs of all - or at the very least, those greasing their already oily pockets; the man who just wants his property back, no matter the blow to his reputation; the famous outsiders who step in to play civil super heroes.
While Kennedy could have crafted a mini-series with the various stories and subplots present, he makes the wise decision to go for the simple and (some what) straightforward. As a result, The Garden feels like a clever cautionary tale masking a much deeper discussion on the way things are done down at city hall. The farmers never stood a chance, really. They acted as if their newfound nation was the land of milk and honey, capable of embracing hard work and good intentions over standard operating procedure. Instead, what was sweet quickly turned sour - and sadly, everyone lost in the end. As with all great documentaries, The Garden reminds us that truth is always more compelling - and painful - than fiction.