A galvanizing tribute to the undeniable muscle behind one singular communal voice, Scott Hamilton Kennedy’s Oscar-nominated documentary The Garden chronicles the trials and tribulations of a group of Los Angeles farmers and their struggling inner-city garden. Located in the heart of South Central, this urban haven of food and ideals sprung up in the aftermath of the chaotic 1992 Rodney King riots. Excavated by the community, the vacant plot of land presented an immediate opportunity to bring people together and heal still-tender wounds, turning out boundless fodder for the poverty-stricken locals and providing a constructive outlet for all the pent-up anger leftover from the riots.
When word got out about the green oasis, some black community organizers began to call into question its purpose, believing the land would better serve as a warehouse that could generate money and employment, later bringing its existence to the attention of city officials. In an underhanded ploy, the city sold the government-owned land back to the original owner for the initial selling price of 5.1 million; the owner later raised the price to a steep 16.2 million, threatening the poor, mostly Latino farmers’ livelihood. As court cases stacked up regarding legitimate ownership, celebrities and politicians across the board—from actress and environmental activist Daryl Hannah to California congresswoman Maxine Waters—came out in support of the dwindling heart of this 14-acre metropolitan patch.
Thinly painted as sinister Goliaths, the city and real estate developers are not given much attention compared to the clearly suffering, bulldozed farm workers, cementing The Garden as a one-sided portrait. But even if everyone’s motivations aren’t fully fleshed out, the documentary digs deep into the racial and monetary problems of a tumultuous, melting-pot community, shedding light on still-embittered tension that bubble under the surface of L.A. city and its people. In the end, the garden eventually becomes more of a faulty wedge than a ceremonious mender, as a storm of controversy fuels a backlash and widens the racial divide between the blacks and Hispanics in the surrounding neighborhood. Kennedy shrewdly establishes this clamant motif through the use of numerous clips of local news footage and newspaper headlines, creating a temporal context for the well-televised, ongoing bout. Documenting nearly 15 years of one subsection of L.A., Kennedy’s film homes in on this microscopic square plot, ultimately spearheading and standing for a cause much bigger than ripened produce and nutrient-rich manure.