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30 July 2008

Movie Review: A Man Named Pearl Makes a Difference

When I first heard the title, thought of Daniel Pearl, the journalist who was killed in Pakistan in 2002. Yet this documentary, A Man Named Pearl, has more in common with Johnny Cash's "A Boy Named Sue."

The man, Pearl Fryar, is an African American man in his sixties. The son of a sharecropper, he grew up poor in North Carolina and moved with his wife to a small town in South Carolina: Bishopville. There, when he sought to buy a house in a white neighborhood, he was discouraged and someone said it was because African Americans didn't keep their yards tidy.

Pearl bought a house among black neighbors and filled his yard with plants that had been discarded by the city nursery. He would and still does pick through the dump pile. From these he created a wonderland, something you'd imagine would abound with Dr. Seuss' characters. Abstract, whimsical topiaries and a gorgeously green lawn became his answer to prejudice. He turned an instant of discrimination into a positive thing that now attracts visitors--of all races, first locally, then throughout the county, then the state, finally nationwide and then internationally.

This 2006 documentary by directors/producers Scott Galloway and Brent Pierson and edited by Greg Grzeszczak deserves a greater audience. Fryar is a shining example of how faith, hard work and perseverance can have positive results on a neighborhood and even a whole community.

The film opens with a simple but jolting sight. A man climbs up a ladder leaned against a tall topiary. He wears old jeans, sturdy, worn leather work boots, and a t-shirt. He carries a frightening gas hedge trimmer. People in the audience gasp as he stops on the very top steps of the ladder, in a manner that would make most of our parents frown and OSHA have a heart attack. Much later, we learn he is in his sixties and his wife worries when it's quiet and warns him when she goes out to stay on the ground.

Starting when he worked four 10-hour days at a can factory, Fryar would come home and work until late at night. Yet the results are a garden so detailed and wondrous that he now teaches art classes and gives lectures about topiaries--something he has not formal training in.

Galloway and Pierson interviewed visitors, neighbors, a local journalist, the visitor bureau, the mayor, art historians, artists, his wife, his son and his preacher as well as the man himself. Fryar is humble and inspiring.

If ever there were a great story about going green and recycling, making something out of nothing, it is this film. Pearl does comment about his name, how he once disliked it but now he views it as an asset. Who wouldn't remember a black man named Pearl?

A Man Named Pearl is a small gem of a movie that should not, particularly in these dark economic times, be missed.

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