Gardens, forests and Black artists: documentaries worth seeing

Some of the documentaries shown at the 44th Annual Chicago International Film Festival should be of interest to progressive activists. They deal with flora — one in the form of a community garden, another the Amazon rainforest — and with Black artists and film.

“The Garden,” winner of the Discovery Channel’s Silverdoc Film Festival, tells the story of America’s largest community garden. In 1992, after the three-day riots in South LA following the videotaped police beating of Rodney King, which left 53 people killed, 2,000 wounded and some $1 billion worth of damage, a 14-acre plot called the South Central Farm was taken over by itinerant farmers. It became a miracle organic garden in one of the most blighted areas of the city. Founder of the garden Doris Bloch stated the logical equation, “Land-people-food-happy days.” The city allowed the farmers to remain until 2004, when the land was sold cheap to wealthy developers, and the farmers were forced to evacuate. The film chronicles the actions of the Latin American immigrants to organize and fight back in the attempt to save their life-sustaining garden. The well-filmed drama that enfolds makes for a stirring and uplifting production. (blackvalleyfilms.com)

Martin Sheen supplies the dramatic narration for “They Killed Sister Dorothy,” a documentary about the tragic killing of a 72-year-old Catholic nun from Ohio who had moved to the Brazilian Amazon forest in 1967 to work with the poor. She traveled there to support the PDS (Sustainable Development Project), a program that gives land to the poor and protects a large portion of the rainforest. She went to a little town called Anapu to help install the PDS, against the wishes of locals who relied on logging and cattle-raising to sustain the community. She challenged and fought illegal logging and cattle-raising, and eventually became known as the Angel of the Amazon by the local people who became her supporters. Her friend and associate, Sister Becky Spires, describes the tragic stripping of the forest canopy and deforestation at the rate of 10 square miles a day at the time. In the last three decades there have been 800 murders over land disputes, but only six faced trial and only one was imprisoned. Dorothy was killed in 2005, possibly with involvement of local officials, and the dramatic trial of her killers is documented in the film. One result of her death was that the rate of deforestation has been reduced. The Silver Hugo Award was given to this USA-Brazilian co-production directed by Daniel Junge.

“Wesley Willis’s Joyrides,” another film from Just Media in Denver, is a charming and loving tribute to an extraordinary people’s artist, a Black man who only wanted to stay out of prison and away from the police. The 6’5” 300-plus-pound rock singer-songwriter-painter, who loved McDonalds, freeways, cars and music, drew pop art with magic markers. He was a friend to thousands and his death saddened the Chicago community where he created his art. Wesley had no pretensions and lived simply. His family members and friends are interviewed throughout this memorable gem.

Brad Osborne has created a great and inspiring documentary about the Black film industry, “In the Shadow of Hollywood — Race Movies and the Birth of Black Cinema.” The film starts with a powerful quote from the great actor Ossie Davis: “Any form of art is a form of power; it has impact, it can effect change — it can not only move us, it makes us move.” He added, “We need to know there is a history,” and Osborne sets out on that task and accomplishes it admirably. “Race movies” are those created by and for the Black community. From 1917 to 1947 an entire parallel industry shadowed the official Hollywood fare. Black theaters, actors and films served the segregated Black audience.

Dorothy Dandridge, Paul Robeson, Lena Horne and Cab Calloway are only four of the many actors who began their careers in race movies, when mainstream film producers refused to hire Blacks. The films afford a rare historical perspective based on Black interpretations of Black culture. Osborne’s well researched and produced documentary is must seeing for those interested in Black film history, film in general, and U.S. cultural and social history.