Tuesday, March 10, 2009


In a small, seemingly fading town in South Carolina, an African-American man named Pearl Fryar -- the son of a sharecropper -- moved into what was presumably a white, middle class neighborhood, some 30 or 40 years ago. Although it’s barely mentioned in the film, a neighbor at the time apparently expressed fear that Fryar would not “keep up his yard” (while, in all likelihood, harboring all kinds of other wonderful racist viewpoints as well).

Whether this alone motivated our man Pearl to become the topiary wonder of South Carolina is never really discussed. It’s one of several points the filmmakers fail to explore in this otherwise fine little documentary about Mr. Fryar.

A Man Named Pearl is rated G, and it accomplishes quite a bit in its 80 minutes. Focusing on an intriguing and immensely likable fellow/horticulturist/artist, the film contains some great visual treats for the kids (really, some of his creations are astounding), and paves the way for important discussions about race, tenacity, courage, and human nature (it also offers the opportunity for early dialog about work, and finding your passion in life). Not only do we learn about this wonderful man who taught himself, after a three-minute “lesson,” how to grow, train and sculpt greenery with all the skill of Edward Scissorhands, but we hear his words of wisdom to college students about the artistic muse, and we feel his love for humanity in the way he greets neighbors and visitors, buses full of tourists and young students, and in the work he donates to the town. His nearly obsessive passion is palpable, and breathtaking. Can you imagine doing hard physical labor for 12 hours a day because you want to, when you hit 60 years of age?

We get a strong sense of all he contributes not only to his immediate community, but also to the larger, human community, like the proverbial ripple from a stone in a pond. His story is simply inspiring, in reminding us that we can achieve just about anything, if we put our hearts and minds to it.

And for all those reasons, it’s a recommended watching experience for the family.

As noted, it’s not a perfect film. There a few angles to the story that aren’t probed deeply enough, such as his history with “the neighbors,” and the transition of this very pretty, middle class neighborhood from predominantly white to what appears to be predominantly African-American. The film could have been edited even a bit tighter, as it feels a bit long, even at a tidy 78 minutes. And as far as kids go, it’s just a wee bit on the dry side, so you may hear a whine or two from your crowd (we did). But then something always comes along to liven it up a bit, so don’t let them sway you.

The only moment where a parent might squirm is when Pearl’s wife recalls the land around their house being undeveloped and open, “sort of a Lover’s Lane,” she says, and then recounts how they’d often find underwear discarded on the property. Your little angel may ask you what a “Lover’s Lane” has to do with underwear; now you’ve got some time to cram.

Here's a brief trailer for the film, plus some Q&A with Pearl from
the Jacob Burns Film Center in Pleasantville, NY:

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