Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art


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PostPosted: Mon Jan 09, 2023 5:16 pm 
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Palm Springs Film Festival (January 5-16, 2023)

North American Premiere

SARA NEWENS, MINA T. SON: RACIST TREES - PALM SPRINGS FILM FESTIVAL (2022)

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We think of trees as beautiful but if ever there was an ugly row of trees the tamarisk trees fencing off Crossley Tract from Palm Springs was that

This is a film to see in conjunction with Margaret Brown's Descendant (NYFF 2022) - which don't miss - on Netflix. Descendant is a more striking piece of documentary filmmaking, and covers a longer period in this country's racial history, but Racist Trees is telling and specific. It's about Palm Springs itself, its privilege, its indifference, its share in America's legacy of racism. Like all good documentaries Racist Trees is a slow accumulation of specific information supplied from many human sources. And it has a positive outcome. In Descendant that outcome - if you can call it positive - is the finding of the remains of the burned slave ship. In Racist Trees, it is the removal, at long last, of a deeply overgrown stand of tamarisk trees that were planted perhaps in 1959 (I'm not sure anybody knows exactly) and grew to act as a racial wall. They were allowed to become overgrown, and their obvious purpose, though never acknowledged by the white majority of Palm Springs, was to screen off a predominantly lower income and black community with less valuable properties that adjoined a golf course on one side of the now very posh town of Palm Springs.

There is a link between Descendant and Racist Trees in that the former focuses on Africatown, AKA Plateau, which is a black community three miles north of downtown Mobile, Alabama. Its population directly descends from the illegal cargo of the slave ship. Nothing quite like that here. As the wealthy community of Palm Springs grew up, there was a whole population of black people who worked as gardeners, cleaners, maids, cooks who could not afford to live there. So a wealthy black man bought land that became Crossley Tract, on the other side of the golf course, where they could afford to live. Crossley Tract was shielded away from Palm Springs and from the nice view of the mountains by the tamarisk trees. According to the local inhabitants, the trees were instrumental in a policy of segregation. Like the population of Africatown in Alabama, Crossley Tract contains numerous generational properties, proudly passed down from generation to generation.

Tamarisks are non-native trees that are invasive and thick and bushy; they harbor rats, they creep into gardens, they make having a swimming pool impossible. And they hide the black community and its less valuable houses from the gaze of the wealthy white Palm Springs residents while hiding the city and the view from the black citizens.

A white man who happened to be a realtor buys a house in Crossley Tract and begins agitating to have the tamarisk trees removed to open up the neighborhood to Palm Springs and the golf course. A chain link fence hidden by the trees also had to be removed.

Filmmakers Sara Newens and Mina T. Son provide a detailed history of this object and the vagaries of its history. They patiently interview citizens of Crossley Tract and members of the Palm Springs city council and mayor. They trace the history, in particular a series of articles of the local paper Desert Sun, and the way Fox News was drawn into the controversy by these, even British tabloids, by the catchy phrase, "racist trees." The mayor never acknowledges the significance of the trees, but the small city council, after years of ignoring requests, finally acknowledge the trees are a hazard. The estimated cost of removal: $200,000 - a fee this community can well afford.

The Crossley Tract residents as well as the current mayor of Palm Springs and the correspondent for Desert Sun are all interviewed sitting outside of their houses. The film is divided into five chapters, each chapter introduced with its title emblazoned on the image of an old fashioned vacation postcard - a nice ironic touch in a film that is subtle and never strident and doesn't take sides.

Racist Trees, 88 mins., debuted at Amsterdam. Palm Springs is the North American premiere, Jan. 7, 8, and 11, 2023.

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