A Man Named Pearl

The documentary-as-hagiography without a political end is a neglected genre.

I say this non-facetiously. A lot of people have done really cool things, and we don’t really need to know about the not cool things they’ve done. We’ve all done those, for the most part, and it tends to trivialize the really good things.

Just an opinion, of course. Some of us do seem to enjoy a good wallow. And it’s hard to imagine some documentaries, like Crumbor Bukowski – Born Into Thiswithout considerable examination of these men’s flaws.

But it’s nice to have a movie that’s along the lines of “Here’s a cool dude and here’s the cool stuff he’s done.” Exempli gratia, A Man Named Pearl. The only remote negativity is the ghost of racism, which is ameliorated by the fact that his current best friend is a white 40-something female museum curator.

Pearl Fryer bought a house nearly 25 years ago in Bishopville in South Carolina, not welcome in certain areas because, apparently, he wouldn’t keep his yard up. So, the marginally educated, 3 decade veteran of a can company bought his house elsewhere (with 3 acres of land! we who live in L.A. salute you!) and embarked on a horticultural journey which may ultimately have the effect of revitalizing his somewhat backward hometown.

First, he had no training, apart from a four-minute how-to on “bonsai”. Second, he builds his garden entirely with cast-offs from the local nursery. Third, he has plants thriving in his yard that really shouldn’t be. Fourth, he uses a hand chainsaw, which is totally inappropriate.

Most importantly, however, Pearl worked weekends–and nights, using a big lamp–for decades and turned his yard into a masterpiece.

And there’s your story.

It’s simple. It’s got lots of great pictures of sculpted bushes and trees, and Pearl Fryer working on them. It’s got his church group, a museum curator, the manager of the local Waffle House, and lots of kids talking about the inspiration the old guy gives them.

There’s a nice message about race relations, God, and the value of hard work–and the value of hard work doing something you love.

I confess, about 20 minutes in, I thought, “Oh, my God! It’s a real live magic negro!” But in that thought, I realize the problem with that stock character: Fryer isn’t magical, he just works his ass off. He’s not a saint, he’s just a really good role model. He’s actually a living example of why that stereotype is offensive.

It’s a nice, hopeful movie with nice, hopeful people in it. It’s about ten minutes too long. Even at that, it’s hard to object too strongly.

And if the people of Bishopville work half as hard as Fryer does, they’re going to be all right.

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