“All politics is local,” the late Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill famously said. And politics don’t get much more local than “The Garden,” an infuriatingly clear-eyed documentary. The Oscar-nominated film, by Scott Hamilton Kennedy, shows in a microcosm what happens at all levels.
“The Garden” is a 14-acre tract in South Central Los Angeles that was turned into a series of small plots for individual farmers to work. Established from the wreckage of the 1992 Rodney King riots, the garden provides fresh produce – everything from corn and tomatoes to mangoes and avocadoes – for the mostly immigrant population that works the patchwork of urban gardens.
But 10 years later, the developer who claims to own the land announces that he is reclaiming it. He will evict the farmers, plow under the gardens and build a warehouse.
It seems to be a fairly open-and-shut case. He owns the land; he has a right to do with it as it he chooses. The farmers themselves are devastated; they feed their families with some of what they grow and sell the rest.
When the members of the collective that administer the community garden decide to fight back, they quickly discover that the powers that be are aligned against them; no surprise there. The developer is backed by the local city councilwoman, who appears to have motives of her own for letting him tear down the lush little piece of paradise to make room for a warehouse – or a soccer field.
This is a true David-and-Goliath story, as the mostly Spanish-speaking farmers unite in this cause – and their lawyers and advocates begin to unravel the skein of sweetheart deals and backroom agreements that have led to this moment. When they’re able to get the information in front of a judge, the law is not only clearly in their favor – but the judges can’t quite believe the audacity with which they’re confronted.
“The Garden” is not a story about race, though there is a dividing line between Latino and African-American communities, each of which claims the moral high ground. What they’re trying to do is wrest control of the neighborhood – and their definition of what control means is vastly different. It’s a battle between two minority groups, each trying to portray itself as the underdog.
What’s striking is how little the press figures into this struggle. TV news – including Spanish-language stations – weigh in and so does an L.A. weekly. But the L.A. Times, as beleaguered a big-city newspaper as is still publishing, apparently isn’t a factor in the public-relations battle.
“The Garden” is suspenseful and moving, a film that keeps you guessing (and hoping) right up until the conclusion. Interestingly, though there are obvious heroes and villains here, there’s no one who doesn’t appear self-serving to some degree. That may be the ultimate lesson about all politics: local or global, self-interest (and the money behind it) will be the death of us all.