How can trees be racist? That’s the question explored in a new documentary, “Racist Trees,” about a historically Black neighborhood called the Crossley tract in Palm Springs, Calif., whose residents suspected a dense row of tall tamarisk trees might have been planted decades ago to segregate them from the adjacent golf course.
While putting a close-up on the residents’ campaign to have the messy, view-blocking trees removed, the film deftly explores wider issues, like the troubled racial history of the idyllic resort town, gentrification and generational wealth – all with a light touch that includes plenty of colorful historic footage of swimming pools and movie stars.
The controversy over whether the trees should be removed might have remained a small local issue if it wasn’t for a 2017 article in the local paper, the Desert Sun. Reported by Corinne Kennedy, the piece drew worldwide attention, and the idea of “racist trees” riled up Tucker Carlson and other right-leaning media outlets, which fanned outrage over the idea that trees could be cut down as “punishment.”
The article also piqued the interest of documentary directors Sara Newens and Mina T. Son. “We just immediately thought there was not only a visual metaphor going on here, but this hidden part of the city that we had no idea about, and figured a lot of people outside, or even inside of Palm Springs, maybe didn’t know either,” says Newens.
Originally conceived as a shorter pilot for a possible docuseries, “Racist Trees” turned into a feature doc after Wayfarer Studios came on, with help from producers including Joanna Sokolowski and Courtney Parker. The feature docu, which is seeking distribution, recently premiered at the Palm Springs Film Festival and screens this week at Montana’s Big Sky Documentary Film Festival.
But despite the Fox News outrage, it wasn’t that the trees themselves were racist. As the documentary explains, the possibility that the trees could have been planted with the intent of segregating the neighborhood from the golf course, plus the nuisance the tamarisks were continuing to create, raised issues of equity in the community. The Crossley tract in eastern Palm Springs was built by Lawrence Crossley, an early Black developer who wanted to provide higher quality dwellings for the city’s Black residents, who often could only find sub-standard housing. The houses alongside a golf course in the small subdivision would usually be prime real estate, but at some point in the early 1960s, a large row of shaggy tamarisk trees was built to divide the houses from the golf course.
It’s a question lost to history whether the intent was to keep Black residents out of sight from golfers or merely to catch stray golf balls, but over the years the trees grew huge and started hogging water and dropping massive amounts of needles, creating a fire hazard and a playground for rats. And not only did they block the green fairways of the golf course, they grew so tall they blocked the view of the mountains beyond, one of the prime attractions of living in Palm Springs.
The houses in the Crossley Tract were worth less than the homes in surrounding neighborhoods, and being cut off by the foliage felt like another slight for the families that had already been affected by the city of Palm Springs brutally clearing the homes of Black and Latino residents in the Section 14 area downtown.
A simple row of trees might sound like a niche subject, but it gave the filmmakers plenty to unpack. Not only was Palm Springs a city known for liberal values and inclusiveness, but the person who spearheaded the campaign was a white real estate agent who had recently moved into the historically Black community.
“This white resident, and this Black community – there were very complex race issues here to explore,” says Son.
That also raised the question of who should best tell the story, which has become a crucial consideration for documentary filmmaking in recent years.
The residents of the Crossley Tract had some initial hesitation that the directors were not Black, but co-executive producer Parker says, “From the start, it was never ‘We’re pitting one group against the other.’ It was, ‘Hey, there is a lot of investigative journalism happening here that we were able to unpack by using the tree line.’ Once that message was conveyed, and conveyed by me, it was easier for all of us to convey that to the residents on both sides.”
Parker says it wasn’t just the nearly hidden community that interested her, but the contrast of Palm Springs being a city that is “so progressive, but also not aware of the blind spots.”
“I, an African American woman who had been going to Palm Springs 20-plus years, never knew that community was there,” she says.
While “Racist Trees” focuses on interviews with residents of the Crossley Tract and local officials, it also puts the subject into a much broader context, looking at how walls, trees, freeways and other dividers have historically kept people economically and culturally segregated around the world.
When residents first raised the question of whether these nuisance trees could be removed, the city of Palm Springs wasn’t very responsive to their concerns. Then Trae Daniel, the real estate agent who had recently bought a house in the neighborhood, rallied his neighbors to appeal to the city.
The mayor and other officials became extremely defensive when questions of racial issues entered the discussion.
“You can be a liberal town, but still uphold racist traditions. And I think that is one of the big points that we wanted to make with this film,” says Newens.
Ultimately, it became clear that not only was there no longer any justification to keep the trees, but it might be better for the city’s image to stop fighting the idea. Once the city had decided it could find the money to remove them, they came down fast, and the filmmakers raced to film the chainsaws clearing the tamarisks.
“We were definitely surprised it happened as quickly as it did. We were excited that the city was willing to take action,” Newens remembers.
Newens credits cinematographer Jerry Henry with helping develop the film’s sun-saturated look. “We had in mind trees as the backdrop because this is the focal point of the story. But also, the environmental portraits can say so much about a space and a person and a place. And obviously Palm Springs is another character in the film,” she says.
In one scene, the mayor is interviewed in his yard with a backdrop of the scenic mountains behind him, starkly illustrating what wasn’t available to the residents of the Crossley Tract.
The dividing trees, access to views and home values are all part of the growing discussion of how real estate contributes to inequity. “There’s a lot that seems to resonate on a universal level just about racial tensions and gentrification and generational wealth and all these things that are just really universal,” says Newens.
But they’re not new concepts, Parker reminds, “If you ask the Black community, or if you ask any community of color, these have been all issues that we have been fighting for and have been so obvious.”
Many of the residents and former residents of the area were excited to see their families’ history come to life at the Palm Springs festival screening, and several people asked when a part two could be made with more of the compelling history from the area.
“It was all an article that revealed some ugliness. But now in the end, something wonderful and beautiful and amazing can come from it,” says Parker.