New Documentary Looks at Why Black Gardeners Matter
Since his TED Talk went viral in 2013, Ron Finley has become the face of urban gardening. In front of his home in South L.A.—which, like a throwback to the days of N.W.A., he still calls South Central—he grows an array of vegetables, flowers, and fruits in an artistic tangle that, at one time, was deemed to be illegal by the city. That bit of land-use policy has changed, with gardens now allowed on Los Angeles parkways, and the urban gardening movement—especially in poor, minority communities like South L.A.—has received increased media attention in the years since.
Now, a new documentary promises the most intimate look at the movement yet. On Tuesday, Delila Vallot’s Can You Dig This, which follows four “unlikely gardeners” whose lives are changed for the better after they get involved with urban gardening, debuts on VOD. Though one young black man Vallot interviewed validates a popular belief, joking that gardening “is really only some white people stuff,” the documentary is very much about how difficult it is to grow up poor and black in a district like South L.A., which Finley calls “the home of the drive-thru and the drive-by.”
The four gardeners at the heart of the doc are Mychael “Spicey” Evan, a 23-year-old former gang member; Kenya Johnson, a 21-year-old orphan; eight-year-old Quimonie Lewis, who helps run a community garden at the Los Angeles housing project she lives in; and Hosea Smith, a former prisoner who helps feed residents at the halfway house he calls home with vegetables he grew himself.
Vallot said in an interview with Vice that she wanted to focus on the positive aspects of the characters’ stories but allowed that they had each faced the same kind of poverty, violence, and institutional racism that activist movements like Black Lives Matter are trying to change.
With gardening, she said, “We’re talking about breaking the cycle. And it does sound overly simplistic, but by surrounding ourselves with a lot of healthy greens, beautifying our neighborhoods, and doing something that is actually feasible—planting a seed in the ground—I saw people’s lives changing.”
She continued, “When I went into the garden on Long Beach Boulevard, which is filled with prostitution, drug dealing, and all that stuff, I saw that that garden was an oasis, and you really do feel safer there. It’s something that really does create change.”