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ReelTalk Movie Reviews
Where God Paints the Scenery
by Donald Levit

Only well into its seventy-eight minutes does Scott Galloway and Brent Pierson’s A Man Named Pearl uncover the tale’s white-on-black racism beginnings, an incident of nasty potential that has turned out happily green all over. Although New Bethel AME Church Reverend Jerome McCray affirms rigid de facto color lines, the many other speakers pussyfoot and never mention the matter; though a title and clip of Jackie Robinson accompany words about the inspiration of the ballplayer’s pioneering breakthrough, the line of separation, and the root problem, seems economic more than anything.

The title is inopportune, misleading in calling up the journalist kidnapped and killed in Karachi six years ago. The name here, however, is Christian, not family, and neither Pearl Fryar nor sister Ada know where or why their mother chose “a woman’s name,” though he is comfortable with it and whimsically remarks that his achievement would have been different if it had been “John’s.”

A protagonist as well is the tiny town to which Pearl and wife Metra moved forty-some years ago. Without a hospital, Bishopville is the seat of Lee County, forty-sixth in per capita income of the forty-six in South Carolina, the state a few dollars shy of being the poorest of all fifty. The husband and wife moved here in 1976, he to work at the local Rexam Beverage Can factory, a common phenomenon as workers left failing farms for urban industrial employment. Not many, however, beat a path to Bishopville, as Interstate 20 just bypassed it and the five thousand daily cars on Main Street-Route 15 did not even slow down on their way through to somewhere else.

Denied their first choice, in a white neighborhood which objected that “black people don’t keep up their yards,” the couple eventually purchased a brick ranch house on what was then Route 3 in an African-American area. Remembering the racial slur, and calmly persevering -- he offers a “horticultural” reason for not conforming to municipal house-numbering updates -- Pearl set out to reverse the stereotype. Not retaliation in kind, but slow steady proof to the contrary was his plan, one which he could never have imagined would blossom into fame and the town’s last gasp to revitalize itself.

With no training whatever, Pearl put in long after-work hours in their three-plus-acre lot, to win the Garden of the Month award. With ladders, twine and wire, panty hose, found junk, plants discarded as hopeless, a gasoline hedge-trimmer and intuition, the self-taught North Carolina sharecropper’s son built his “Love, Peace and Goodwill” into a green colorblind paradise. He laughs with the filmmakers about his half-hour of fame as against Andy Warhol’s universal fifteen minutes, and has received national media coverage, spoken before college art classes, inspired neighboring homeowners and children, exhibited at museums (outside in the lawn, of course), dined with local bigwigs.

The man’s credo is having a goal, any goal, and reaching it, his particular forte being topiary, the shaping of trees and shrubs into recognizable or abstract forms. Familiar to audiences if at all from the Outlook hotel in Kubrick’s The Shining, the term itself means little to this practitioner who does it without preliminary drawings, and was at first unknown to officials who now talk glowingly of Pearl but then have a lot to say about economic benefits from the tourism he attracts.

Pearl himself is impeccable, a man who knows his worth but remains unaffected by the clamor, who pep-talks school kids to be all that they can and want to be, and has no trouble with his grown son’s preference for computers. Sixty-nine, of a deep thoughtful voice, he is a figure of a man, as well, flat in front with muscular arms that draw female visitors’ oohs and aahs, but a devoted husband and church member who attributes all to God.

Perhaps this is an urban cynic’s cavil -- though grit and guns pollute every nook and cranny, way beyond the unsafe downtown of Columbia, the state’s capital and only city over 100,000 -- but, however merited, the encomiums cloy, like the short-lived TV program that reported only “good” news items. This reflects the temper of these times, but in the end there simply is not enough here to float. Squeaky surfaces are nice but uninteresting. The garden has spoken to man forever but requires its non-manicured dirt: biblical in Genesis, metaphysical for Marvell or ironical-philosophical to Voltaire, symbolical in Frances Hodgson Burnett, moral-allegorical with Del Toro, it stands in need of something beneath it. 

(Released by Shadow Distribution and rated “G” as suitable for all audiences.)

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