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LA’s Gritty Sodbusters

In Review: Can You Dig This

During the Age of Reason, Voltaire wrote the philosophical novel Candide about a youth who travels around the world and upon returning home to Europe at the end of his odyssey towards self-discovery, realizes: “We must cultivate our gardens.”

Los Angeles-born and raised Delila Vallot’s 83-minute documentary Can You Dig This transplants Voltaire’s notion to South Central Los Angeles, following a handful of latter- day Candides as they pursue urban gardening on their own paths to enlightenment in an area where movies such as Boyz n the Hood and Straight Outta Compton were set.

Twenty-three-year-old ex-gangmember Mychael “Spicey” Evans and the tattooed 21-year-old, formerly “gang affiliated” Kenya Johnson till the land at the Compton Community Garden. Hosea Smith, who served 30 years for killing someone, tends a garden at a halfway house for ex-cons. In a plot of earth at the projects where she lives, adorable eight-year-old Quimonie Lewis grows food to sustain her struggling family.

Perhaps the most prolific and fascinating of these Candides in the ’hood is Ron Finley, the so-called “Gangster Gardener.” The middle-aged, goateed thinker laments living inside a “food desert” with fast food restaurants, convenience and liquor stores but few, if any outlets selling healthy groceries and cuisine. “The obesity rate in my neighborhood is five times that of Beverly Hills, eight, six miles away,” observes Finley, who grows his own food at home and provides produce free of charge to his South LA neighbors.

However, it turns out that growing vegetables, fruits, etc., on the parkway in front of his house – the landscaped area located between the sidewalk and parallel public street – violates municipal ordinances. Finley grouses, “I became an outlaw criminal for growing carrots on my parkway… I’m not a cow – I can’t eat grass… Growing your own food is defiant.”  Refusing to uproot his urban oasis, Finley – who, throughout the documentary, wears a t-shirt bearing the words “Renegade Gardener” – becomes an activist, taking on the powers that be.

Finley hypothesizes that “because of the legacy of slavery lots of Blacks fell out of contact with the soil.” Each of Can you Dig This’ mostly African American city farmers finds renewed meaning in their agricultural activities that endows them with purpose and optimism amidst their troubled urban landscape. Getting back to the land, even if it’s just patches of dirt in their backyards, and planting a seed and watching it grow and blossom, teaches the planters profound life lessons.

Henry (whose last name isn’t mentioned), an ex-con living at the same halfway house as Hosea, likens these urban gardeners to the dirt they grow in, ruminating: “We’re the bottom of society… [and] break through the cracks.” After a stint back behind bars Evans returns to work again at the Compton Community Garden, where he finds solace, saying: “You’ve got to have patience for something to grow.”

The orphaned, unemployed Johnson, names her garden bed “Blessing.” Lewis – who has three little sisters and an overweight father recovering from a heart attack – gushes, “The important thing about the garden is that we get free food. We gotta eat… I’m the garden police.” At one point the child sets up a stand in the projects where she lives, selling $21 worth of watermelons, tomatoes, and squash.

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Not surprisingly, the eloquent Finley is the most reflective of these sodbusters in LA’s gritty blocks. Looking over the flourishing flowers, veggies, and fruits in his garden he muses: “I planted my Eden and it turned out to be my paradise on the street… If you put beauty in a place that doesn’t have it, that’s a game changer… We can create utopia in our own environment… We will change the ecosystem. We can save the planet… This is my gospel: Growing your own food is like printing your own money.”

The film shows how, after L.A. Times columnist Steve Lopez shined a spotlight on the guerrilla gardener, the Los Angeles City Council voted to allow Angelenos to grow vegetables and fruits in their parkways (although fruit trees still reportedly require permits). The New York Times has also written about Finley, calling the activist “a pavement pounding Johnny Appleseed.” He has parlayed his urban grower activism into national prominence, becoming a TED Talks speaker and one of the executive producer’s of the documentary.

Can You Dig This, which won a 2015 LA Film Festival Jury Award, helps dispel the misperception that environmentalism and urban gardening is the exclusive domain of white elitists. The documentary shows that return to nature sentiments also exist among urbanized America’s black community. As Finley points out, LA owns 26 square miles of vacant blocks – the equivalent of 20 Central Parks. If residents and the municipality cultivated urban gardens in these areas, in addition to providing organic, healthy food at low or no cost to low income people living in food deserts, it would also beautify the City of the Angels, much of which suffers from urban blight.

Back in 2008, Scott Hamilton Kennedy’s The Garden, which featured Daryl Hannah and Danny Glover, received a Best Documentary Oscar-nomination for depicting the rise and fall of a 14-acre urban farm in South Central LA that was raided by the LAPD, who forcibly evicted farmers and activists and destroyed their plots. Now, with her feature-length documentary debut, actor/dancer Delila Vallot has made a valuable film addition to the chronicling of the urban grower cause, revealing that the movement for locally sourced, healthy, homegrown, inexpensive food, as well as beautification, continues in America’s inner cities. Like Voltaire , Vallot’s film shows: “We must cultivate our gardens.”

Can You Dig This is available on the following VOD platforms: Comcast, Time Warner Cable, Dish Network, DirectTV, Cox, Charter on Demand, Verizon, Suddenlink, Mediacom, Insight, Wow!, RCN, EastLinkTV, Rogers on Demand, Shaw, Telus, iTunes, Google Play, YouTube, Vudu, Amazon, Microsoft, Playstation and Hoopla.

Ed Rampell
L.A.-based reviewer/film historian Ed Rampell lived in Oceania for 23 years and co-authored three film histories on South Seas Cinema, including The Hawaii Movie and Television Book.

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