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L.A. Confidential: The Taking of the South Central Garden

Scott Hamilton Kennedy’s Oscar-nominated follow-up to 2002’s OT: Our Town, his documentary about a Compton high school attempting to stage its first play in over 20 years, chronicles a South Central Los Angeles farming community’s struggle to save its land from a millionaire developer. The stage is set for a power struggle rife with moral outrage, and The Garden delivers that in spades, but Kennedy’s second effort is as much a compelling, seamlessly crafted underdog tale as a revealing glimpse behind the curtain of big-city politics.

As one might expect, it’s not a pretty sight. Into the world of an unassuming and seemingly harmonious group of Latino gardeners wander disingenuous politicians, community activists (derisively dubbed “poverty pimps”) whose motives are far less altruistic than they first appear, and celebrity advocates including Daryl Hannah and Danny Glover. And that’s to say nothing of Ralph Horowitz, the vindictive real-estate mogul whose shady backroom deals with the L.A. City Council are conveniently sanctioned by the city’s courts.

What begins as a simple legal dispute soon gives way to a grim portrait of human avarice and pettiness, as civic leaders manipulate the situation, first for political capital and later financial gain, and the increasingly embittered farmers turn on themselves, violently and otherwise.

Yet The Garden isn’t singularly preoccupied with corruption and the betrayals it breeds. Regardless of the outcome, there is a hard-won communal unity forged in the fight. The film is uplifting to a point, but equally frustrating in its portrayal of a system all too predictably skewed toward protecting people with the money to game it.