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By Ciara LaVelle
John Singleton's new film, Rosewood, chronicles a shocking and little-known incident in the history of American racism--the destruction of the title village and massacre of many of its black residents by a white mob.
A moderately prosperous hamlet in the pine forests of western Florida, Rosewood came under attack in 1923 when whites from the nearby (and less well-to-do) town of Sumner became convinced that their black neighbors were harboring a black fugitive who had supposedly attacked a white woman. Within a week, Rosewood was gone--the inhabitants either murdered or driven off through the swamps, the homes burned. The single house still standing today was occupied by Rosewood's only white family.
There's no restrained or understated way to tell this story. Singleton gives us action, suspense, high drama, even some romance, peppered with grandly melodramatic flourishes. Lovers exchange tokens. A man lets himself be hanged to save his horse's life. A redneck teaches his son to tie a noose while a church burns in the background. A rider who's come to save the children crests a hill, silhouetted against a sky crimson with the distant fires of racial hatred.
Some of this (not all) is dramatically heightened, but none of it feels hysterical or implausible, and none of it feels simplistic, either. After Poetic Justice, which never got conceptually past the stage of "Let's do a movie about a young black poetess," and the overheated Higher Learning, Singleton has gone back to the bold, straightforward style of his fine debut, Boyz N the Hood, and, I think, improved on it. It's the most heartfelt filmmaking he's done, and the strongest.
There are times when his approach here feels old-fashioned, in the best sense--fully, unapologetically committed to involving us in the story. Some moments recall silent-movie technique at its best: The subtitle "Sunday" appears onscreen, followed by shots of an empty church. Then, when Singleton pans down a telephone line and we hear the voices of the whites organizing mobs, it's like the early experiments with sound in film.
The script, by Gregory Poirier, isn't as sure-footed as the direction. Poirier drew on the accounts and speculations, inevitably hazy, of Rosewood's survivors, who were children at the time of the incident (they were paid reparations by the Florida legislature in 1994). Poirier shaped and shuffled events and combined some of the characters, and, in a risky stroke, he also divided one.
According to Michael D'Orso's compelling book Like Judgment Day, a Rosewood resident named Sylvester Carrier, a hunter, trapper and musician who probably died in a gun battle with a mob at his house--taking two whites with him--was known in the town simply as "Man." Poirier shows us Sylvester (played by that excellent actor Don Cheadle). But he also invents a separate Movie Hero for the story, a strong, laconic black stranger called Mann (Ving Rhames) who's very much like the Man With No Name in the spaghetti Westerns.
The gentle yet fearless Mann is intended both as a modern man of action and as a knight in shining armor. Like many other movie heroes, he owes much to Shane. Probably Poirier and Singleton just couldn't bear to present the Rosewood blacks only as hapless fugitives. The device of Mann opens them to the charge of being too free with their history. But the liberty isn't intended to deceive the audience; it's just a nod to form, and, as a dramatic instinct, it's quite sound. Much of the film's vigor comes from Mann's derring-do in the nail-biting final reel.
As long as one can stand some fairly Jacobean violence, the film is marvelous to watch. But Rosewood's real power comes less from theatrics than from the history at its core. Singleton and Poirier have managed to dramatize, in a broadly appealing way, the resentment which white racists feel when blacks do well. It's clear that no one really believes the white woman (Catherine Kellner) who claims that she was attacked by a black man. Her story merely offers a pretext for a reprisal the whites had been itching for.
The familiar cast members, black and white alike, seem to have connected with the material with more than usual intensity--several of them exceed their own previous work.
As Sylvester's brave, wise mother, a part that invites easy grandstanding, Esther Rolle holds back on the coloratura, playing with reserve and a little bite. She's a tough, intelligent, outspoken old lady, not a chuckling old dear.
A lovely, animated young actress named Elise Neal makes a strong impression as Mann's love interest. (Her character, Beaulah "Scrappie" Carrier, really existed; how tragic that she fell for a fictitious character.)
Among the whites, Bruce McGill manages to keep even the most slavering of the rednecks from being a mere cartoon. Michael Rooker has a miserable, one-note role as the weak sheriff. He spends the whole film screaming for order and being ignored, so it's to his credit that he manages as decent a performance as he does.
The standout, though, is Jon Voight as James Wright, the sole white businessman in Rosewood, a shopkeeper who finds himself in the position of having to choose between his black customers, to whom he feels closer, and the whites who expect him to embrace their mob.
If the Rosewood story is like a miniature version of what happened to the Jews in Europe, then Voight is a puny version of their Oskar Schindler. The merchant-class whites--Wright and a couple of railroad men--are shown to have had enough economic dealings with the blacks to have developed sympathy for them, while the dirt-poor rednecks see the blacks as rivals.
Despite the heroism of Sylvester and Mann, Singleton and Poirier recognize the conflicted Mr. Wright as the most interesting character, and by the end, Voight's role has basically become the lead. It's the best movie part he's had in years. Wright isn't a violent man and he isn't a simpleton, but he is, in a mild, ingrained way, a racist. So it's deeply touching when he's faced with the choice of whether to help the blacks--you feel your own soul in the balance.
Directed by John Singleton; with Jon Voight and Ving Rhames.
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