In north-central South Carolina, sandwiched between Darlington to the east and Camden to the west, sits the tiny city of Bishopville, population 4,000. Bishopville, with a farming economy on the wane and a main street peppered with empty storefronts, is the poorest county seat in the state. But on that same main street, there is also something that looks like hope, or at least art: trees that have been carved and shaped into beautiful grasping abstractions, bushes that look like they’ve been plucked out of the imagination. To be exact, the imagination of Pearl Fryar, a 66-year-old African-American son of a sharecropper who has turned his private love for the natural world into very public displays of artistic, even spiritual, ambition. For years, Fryar – a lifelong employee of a can-manufacturing plant – has been the creative force behind one of the greatest and most original topiary gardens in the country, a garden he constructed out of his 3-acre yard in a Bishopville suburb over thousands of evenings and weekends, using a chainsaw, a few shears, a step ladder, and a true artist’s vision. That result is what Versailles might look like if it had been designed by Dr. Seuss and built by Edward Scissorhands: a sprawling idiosyncratic parterre featuring arboreal spirals and triangles that seem to bob in the air and bushes that have been carved into delicate Cubist curves. Pearl, in other words, is one of those guys put on earth to make the rest of us feel like we’re wasting our lives. But while it’s easy to celebrate a self-taught artist who’s been commissioned not only by museums and city governments but also Waffle Houses, it’s also easy to find fault with a documentary that’s so intent on being merely amiable. Little in A Man Named Pearl
justifies its length, and nothing could ever justify the seemingly endless parade of interviewees Galloway and Pierson enlist to say pleasant things about their subject. Who has ever been so loved, so respected and revered, without qualification or exception, as Fryar appears to be in Bishopville? Nobody. Not even local-news profiles are this glowing. And if it’s impossible to imagine any man existing without inspiring a little rancor, or at least jealousy, it’s beyond impossible to believe that a black man gaining national fame in a small Southern city even its residents admit is still plagued by racial discrimination would be so universally adored. Conflict and controversy are the breeding ground for story, and A Man Named Pearl
– for all its beauty and inspiration – is sorely lacking in these elements.