Can You Dig This


Hosea Smith testifies.

Hosea Smith testifies.

(2015) Documentary (Gathr Films/Gravitas) Ron Finley, Mychael “Spicey” Evans, Kenya Johnson, Quimonie Lewis, Randy Lewis, Hosea Smith. Directed by Delila Vallot

There is something soul-enriching about going into the yard and planting a garden. The serenity that comes from working with the earth, watching seeds sprout into life and grow into plants bearing fruit and vegetables that we take for nourishment; few things are as wonderful and as satisfying as eating something you’ve grown yourself.

In South Central L.A., one of the most dangerous and violent neighborhoods in the country, that isn’t always an easy proposition. Ron Finley, a local resident, was tired of having little more than fast food available to him as a nutrition option and with grocery stores selling mainly prepared or unhealthy items and no alternatives for healthy organic vegetables, he chose to grow his own. His garden, on the verge in front of the house, grew to enormous heights which turned into an oasis of beauty in a neighborhood of vacant lots, barred windows and trash. When he was cited for violating an ordinance preventing residents from planting anything but grass on the city-owned verge, he fought  the ordinance  which attracted the attention of Los Angeles Times columnist Steve Lopez. Lopez’ articles would eventually help turn the tide.

Other residents of the area were also inspired. Ex-convict Hosea Smith, living in a halfway house after being paroled from a thirty year manslaughter sentence, helped himself reintegrate into society by planting his own garden, along with his roommate Henry, also an ex-con. The two men formed a common bond by their love of growing things.

Kenya Johnson, an orphan, and Mychael “Spicey” Evans, a drug dealer, were both affiliated with gangs in South Central which is pretty much infested with them. The two found some relief through the Compton Community Gardens through a youth pastor there. Eventually the two, who had adjoining plots in the garden, became close friends and maybe more.

Quimonie Lewis, a precocious eight-year-old girl, likes planting things and wants to eat healthy things. With the help of her father, the Housing Project President where they live, she puts together a garden of her own, planting things like cantaloupes, tomatoes and peppers – all things she likes to eat. Her father, who has a heart condition, insists on eating an unhealthy diet, eventually being stricken with a serious heart attack. Quimonie sees her garden as a means of saving her dad’s life as well as a means of earning extra income for the family.

All of these stories are told through the warm eyes of director Vallot, who has a background as an actress and a dancer. Her camera movements are graceful as you would imagine a dancer’s would be, catching the jet planes that fly over South Central in mid-flight, going places most of the people who live there will never see. The sounds of gunfire, police sirens and jets are the constant soundtrack of South Central.

This is a gentle documentary, one that tells a story that actually can bring the viewer a feeling of inner peace as we watch how these people are directly affected by working with the soil and the sunshine and the water and the seeds, all that is needed to bring about life. As Hosea puts it, we all come from the soil and feel a connection with it.

Finley comes off as the most eloquent advocate. His efforts landed him a speech at a recent TED conference which has millions of YouTube views since it was posted; he isn’t what you’d call polished but the passion is there and so is the wisdom, although it is wisdom gleaned from the streets of South Central.

There’s an inspiring message to be had here; we can change the environment around us by something as simple as planting a garden, but it can go beyond that as well. For those who feel powerless and without any control, these are people who persevered and got something impressive done. Even Spicey, who was without work for more than two years, finds a job.

The editing could have used a little bit of work; some of the stories don’t flow as well as they should and in places we find out background information near the end of the movie that we could have used to put the film in context from the get-go, which makes for frustrating viewing; even the reveals have the subtlety of a sledgehammer.

I did like the documentary, although I felt it could hav used a little more time in the editing bay. With a defter touch, this could have really been something special but even so, the story is compelling and the film overall is inspiring. Not a bad way to be remembered if you ask me.

REASONS TO GO: Laid back and serene. Finley and Smith are compelling advocates.
REASONS TO STAY: A little disjointed. Lacks context.
FAMILY VALUES: Profanity throughout and drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: One of the executive producers on the film is singer John Legend.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/2/15: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Garden
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Bone Tomahawk

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The Garden


The Garden

An urban oasis.

(2008) Documentary (Oscilloscope Laboratories) Rufina Juarez, Tezozomoc, Josefina Medina, Eddie Luvianos Rumbos, Deacon Alexander, Miguel Perez, Jan Perry, Juanita Tate, Doris Bloch, Dan Stormer, Ralph Horowitz, Danny Glover, Darryl Hannah, Antonio Villaraigosa, Joan Baez, Dennis Kucinich. Directed by Scott Hamilton Kennedy

 

The land is the important thing. It is what nurtures us, gives us sustenance. There are those who identify with the land as surely as they identify with their selves. It is more to them than a plot of dirt, or a bit of grass. It is everything.

After the Rodney King riots in Los Angeles, a 14 acre plot of land in South Central Los Angeles that was intended for use as a trash incinerator until neighborhood activists put a stop to it was given by the city for use as an urban garden. It would be the largest of its kind in the United States.

The garden at East 41st and South Alameda was primarily tended to by primarily Hispanic farmers, many of whom had been farmers or were descended from farmers in Mexico. They grew vegetables and fruits almost all native to the region that encompasses Mexico and the Southwestern United States known as the Mega-Mexico Vavilov Center (sounds like a discount store doesn’t it) some of which are considered weeds (like dwarf nettle and seepweed) but were used for herbal and medicinal uses by the farmers, while others were vegetables and fruits not commonly available at supermarkets.

The farmers used these vegetables and fruits to supplement the diet of their families; the excess they would sell to other families in order to buy new seeds and whatever else they needed to tend their garden.

Of course prime real estate in Los Angeles has a habit of finding different uses. While the city owned the land, they had acquired it through eminent domain, paying what was considered a fair market value for the property. Part of the agreement for that eminent domain was that if the land was sold for non-public or non-housing purposes, the original owners had a right to repurchase ten years after the property had originally been condemned.

Ralph Horowitz, one of the partners in the investment firm that was the largest of the nine owners of the property, sued the city for breach of contract. While the city denied his claim, eventually in a closed door negotiation the suit was settled and Horowitz was allowed to repurchase the land for slightly more than the city had paid for it, which was substantially under the market value at the time.

A few months later Horowitz notified the farmers that he was terminating the use of the property as an urban garden and that all the farmers would be evicted as of February 29, 2004. The farmers, who formed a collective known as South Central Farmers Feeding Families, immediately obtained legal counsel from Hadsell and Stormer Inc as well as Kaye, McIane and Bednarski LLP and a lawsuit was filed seeking to invalidate the sale. The litigants were able to obtain an injunction staying the termination date while the legal matter was settled.

The farmers lost the lawsuit and attempted to negotiate with Horowitz to buy the land themselves. Horowitz demanded $16.3M  for the property, more than three times what he’d paid for it less than two years earlier. The farmers eventually raised the funds with the help of the Annenberg Foundation, but Horowitz didn’t respond to the offer because it came after his eviction deadline.

The case had become a cause célèbre in Los Angeles, with celebrity activists such as Baez and Hannah actively protesting the eviction (Hannah would be arrested for tree-sitting in a walnut tree on the property and refusing to leave when the police ordered her out) and on June 13, 2006 at 3am in the morning, the police surrounded the property, evicted the protesting farmers and allowed Horowitz’ contractors to bulldoze the Garden.

This is what most of us saw. What we didn’t see was the political chicanery going on behind the scenes. Of promises made and broken. Of politicians showing support for the Garden but doing nothing to save it, and of community activists whose agenda was less for the community and more for their own profit.

The sympathies of the film lie clearly with the farmers. The main spokespeople, Juarez and Tezozomoc come off very well, speaking passionately and in Tezozomoc’s case quite eruditely on the controversy. Coming off less well are Horowitz, community activist Juanita Tate and U.S. Representative Maxine Waters, both of whom are portrayed as corrupt and politically savvy.

This was an Oscar nominee for Best Documentary feature and with good reason. The strength of the farmers, nearly all of whom were from the poorest segment of society, is inspiring as they took on the political powers-that-be in the City of Angels as well as the wealthy segments of society. While it is certainly one-sided, it did capture the facts nicely as well as some of the background as well.

While the story doesn’t end happily for the farmers, it does at least bring to light some of the injustice that took place and made accountable those who gave lip service to serving the people but were in reality serving themselves. That is, unfortunately, all too common a situation today.

WHY RENT THIS: A moving account of underdogs standing up to City Hall and developers.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Little of the criticism leveled against the activists is explored or even mentioned..

FAMILY VALUES: There are a few bad words used here and there but not so many as to be distressing to parents.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: As of June 2011, the site remains a vacant lot with the proposed warehouse and distribution center still unbuilt.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There’s a featurette on the history of the Garden, as well as a look at celebrities who visited it during the protest. There is also a film festival Q&A with director Kennedy and film critic David Poland.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $26,931 on an unreported production budget; I’m pretty sure the movie was unprofitable from a box office standpoint.

FINAL RATING: 9/10

TOMORROW: Fair Game

Akeelah and the Bee


Akeelah and the Bee

Keke Palmer is a bright new talent judging on her performance in Akeelah and the Bee.

(Lionsgate) Keke Palmer, Laurence Fishburne, Angela Bassett, Curtis Armstrong, J.R. Villarreal, Sean Michael, Sahara Garey, Tzi Ma, Eddie Steeples. Directed by Doug Atchison.

Often, we attribute courage to doing something beyond our means of doing, but taking it on anyway. Certainly, that takes a particular sort of fortitude, but there is a different type of courage, one that involves doing what you can do, at a moment when it is difficult to do it. It’s a less glamorous sort of bravery, much quieter than the other, but no less real.

What 11-year-old Akeelah Anderson (Palmer) can do is spell. She’s really, really good at it. She plays Scrabble incessantly on her computer. It is a means of connecting with her dad, who was murdered when she was six. It is a harsh reality but by no means an unusual one in South Central Los Angeles, where she lives. At night, she hears the sirens and the police helicopters; by day, she sees the gangbangers crouched low in their low-slung cars, low men in basketball jerseys. Stephen King would have recognized the type.

Akeelah is good at spelling, but she hides her bright light under a bushel basket. At Crenshaw Middle School, good can get you laughed at. Good can get you beat up. Good can get you isolated from everyone, and when you live in a war zone, you can’t afford to go it alone. At Crenshaw, it’s much safer to blend in and be invisible. Excellence isn’t a ticket out per se, but a ticket to a badge of ridicule.

A new principal, Mr. Welch (Armstrong) is trying to change things. The scores at Crenshaw continue to decline despite everyone’s best efforts, and funds for everything is tight. Still, he knows he has to come up with new and inventive ways to motivate these kids to achieve. He institutes a school spelling bee, part of the Scripps National Spelling Bee competition. The winner will go to the regional bee for L.A. County, while the ten best from that will go to the district bee for Southern California, and the three best from that will head to Washington D.C. for the national final. Welch, perhaps a bit over-ambitiously, wants to see a Crenshaw student make it to the finals.

To that end, he’s enlisted an old college buddy, Dr. Larabee (Fishburne) to help coach. Larabee, on sabbatical from his job teaching literature at UCLA, is not enthusiastic, but he does live in the neighborhood and was a national finalist himself back in the day, so he agrees to help.

Akeelah isn’t very enthusiastic either. Go in front of the whole school and spell? She might as well paint a target on her back. Then, she sees the national finals on ESPN and realizes that this is something she can do. She’s still a bit wary but is basically blackmailed into it by Principal Welch. Of course, she wins the school bee easily and Dr. Larabee, who can see something in her that he can work with, agrees to coach her for the nationals.

It isn’t easy. Akeelah has a lot of attitude and not a lot of support at home. Her mom (Bassett) has her hands full being a single mom with a son who is sliding towards a gang lifestyle, a daughter who left school after getting pregnant and Akeelah, who has been skipping classes. Talk of a spelling bee is foolish; she needs to concentrate on her studies.  She continues to study behind her mom’s back and manages to scrape by the regionals by the skin of her teeth. There, she befriends Javier (Villarreal), a Mexican-American kid whose father is a noted journalist and author; he’s attending a much wealthier school with the kind of facilities Akeelah can’t even begin to dream of. She also meets Dylan (Michael), an Asian-American kid from the same school who is cold, driven and pushed to winning by his father (Ma) who’s seen his son finish as runner-up at the national event twice; this will be Dylan’s last shot at it. As Akeelah gains more success, she finds that rather than getting humiliated, she is getting venerated. The whole neighborhood is behind her and in fact she is becoming something of a local celebrity. Still, the pressure is taking a terrible toll on Akeelah. Her best friend (Garey) won’t talk to her anymore, and Dr. Larabee has abruptly – and curtly – told her she has learned everything she needs from him and basically tosses her into the lake to swim or drown. As you can guess, this is an inspirational movie. You know it is going to end on a high note, but quite frankly how it arrives there and the nature of the high it finishes on is clever and well-done. Writer/director Atchison has done a marvelous job with this story, investing us in Akeelah’s fears and needs yet never talking down to us. It is certainly an afro-centric movie in that it consists of mostly Afro-American characters and quotes mostly Afro-American thinkers but it isn’t just for that community; Akeelah is a character anyone can relate to.

Much of the credit for that must go to Keke Palmer. This is a movie that she must carry and she does it so well that you wonder if Dakota Fanning could have done it any better (the answer: no). She is bright, charismatic but vulnerable and just such a good role model that you can’t help but cheer for her. When I say she’s a role model, that’s not to say she’s too good to be true; as a matter of fact, she does the wrong thing from time to time, but her instincts are to do the right thing and she tends to make the right choice. It’s actually fun watching her blossom, from a shy, frightened little girl into a self-confident spelling champion.This is a movie that moves to a specific rhythm, and it is a timeless beat. Akeelah and the Bee succeeds because you wind up liking Akeelah Anderson. While the other characters in it are solid (Fishburne and Bassett are solid as always, and who’d have thought Booger from Revenge of the Nerds could act?) you will leave this movie remembering Keke Palmer. You will also leave with a warm feeling, and that’s not half bad. You probably won’t leave the movie wanting to spell any better, but it’s a good bet that if you leave the movie wanting to be like Akeelah, that would be a very good thing.

WHY RENT THIS: In a word, Keke Palmer. While ostensibly about the situation in South Central, it is a story anyone can relate to. Solid supporting cast bulwarks this inspirational tale.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: A movie about a spelling bee is almost slow-moving by definition.

FAMILY VALUES: Highly recommended for young teens; suitable for any audiences however.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: The character of Dr. Larabee is based on director Atchison’s real-life teacher Mr. Larabell.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There is a music video of Palmer singing “All My Girlz” which appears on the soundtrack.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: Hunger