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 the non-cool things, for the most part, and there’s no point in letting that trivializing the good stuff.

Just an opinion, of course. Some of us do seem to enjoy a good wallow. And it’s hard to imagine some documentaries, like Crumb or Bukowski – Born Into This without considerable examination of these men’s flaws.

The Man of the Hour. The Hour of Flower Power. Or something.

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 Frayer 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.

What’s going on here? I don’t know, but it’s amazing!

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 Frayer 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: Frayer 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.

Bishopville’s #1 Tourist Attraction, totally blowing away The Lizard Man of Scape Ore Swamp

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 Frayer does, they’re going to be all right.

This review is from 2008, before I had come up with my 3-point documentary scale. I’ve corrected the spelling of Mr. Frayer’s name, fixed the broken links (the Internet is forever, but not usefully so), and added the pictures as well as the content below.

  1. Subject matter: One man doing what he can is not the sort of epic material, e.g. Oscar likes to celebrate. In 2006, two of the documentary nominees were anti-Iraq-war, two others were anti-Christian, and the winner, of course, was the risible scaremongering propaganda, An Inconvenient Truth. Stuff like this is great in the way Rodney Smith Jr.’s “50 Yard Challenge” is great: It’s unalloyed goodness that improves the world just by being there.
  2. Presentation: Plain as can be, but with lots of nice pictures of gardens.
  3. Slant. Yeah, it’s a hagiography. And that’s cool, man.

Unfortunately, Bishopville has continued to dwindle in the past 15 years since the documentary was made. I blame the Lizard Man.

He got the lyrics to the song wrong, but I still don’t see what’s so funny about it.

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