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Dredging in the Deep South

Jordan Levin, based in Miami, is an occasional contributor to Calendar

The raccoon is a little shy, peering out from high in the tree, then squirreling his way down to sniff tentatively closer to director John Singleton, who--rapt, smiling, coaxing--is holding out a bit of food. He is sitting in the central Florida woods just northwest of Orlando, for the moment ignoring the ticks and the chiggers and the mosquitoes and the rattlesnakes, as well as the cast and crew assembled for the night shoot.

“Hey, Arnett!” Singleton calls. “Look at this!”

He is addressing Arnett Doctor, whose mother was burned out of the small black town of Rosewood, Fla., in the real-life version of the story Singleton has come here to film. “I do believe this is changing him,” Doctor whispers. Then, grinning, he calls back, “That’s some good eating there, John!” The raccoon seems to get the message and scurries back up the tree.

Singleton grimaces. “Eating!” he says with a shudder.

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“I love it here,” Singleton says later. “All the wildlife. If you were here in the daytime, you could see the spring--it’s crystal-clear--and you can see snapping turtles.” He reclines in the seat of his dark green Toyota Land Cruiser. It’s almost midnight in the second-to-last week of shooting on “Rosewood,” the end of a month of night shoots, and Singleton is tired. His voice is so low it almost disappears.

“Yeah, it’s all been like a camping trip,” he says sarcastically.

Tackling this story of racism gone burning wild in the heart of the South has been considerably more than a nature excursion for him. “I had a very deep--I wouldn’t call it fear--but a deep contempt for the South,” Singleton continues, “because I felt that so much of the horror and evil that black people have faced in this country is rooted here. I thought, ‘I’ll never make a movie in the South. [Expletive] the South.’ So in some ways this is my way of dealing with the whole thing.”

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In the first week of 1923, Rosewood was attacked and burned by a white lynch mob after a white woman in the neighboring town of Sumner claimed a black drifter had attacked her. Rosewood’s residents, many of them prosperous, independent property owners, fled homeless into the swamps.

The incident made headlines across the country. “Many Die in Florida Race War,” said the Miami Daily Metropolis. “Kill Six in Florida,” announced the New York Times. But then it dropped out of history as completely as the town itself disappeared from the landscape; as with a hidden cancer or a childhood rape, the survivors--traumatized, fearful and enraged--kept silent.

Then, in 1982, a St. Petersburg Times reporter dug up the story. Doctor, whose mother, Philomena, was one of those who fled, pulled survivors and descendants together for a reparations lawsuit that led the Florida Legislature to award them $2.1 million in 1994. That same year, producer Jon Peters saw a story about the town on CBS’ “60 Minutes,” contacted Doctor and bought the rights. Now Warner Bros. and Singleton are putting a Hollywood spotlight onto what was once a horrifying secret.

One of Doctor’s distant cousins is playing his mother as a child, and Singleton is feeding raccoons in the woods, digging for the wellsprings of racism. There’s a spine-tingling sense of history hovering over this movie, as if the ghosts of Rosewood are peering hopefully around the palmettos.

Everyone involved, from stars to production assistants, seems to sense that gaze from the past, to believe that they’re involved in something important, something real. “I feel that we are witnesses, almost like survivors are witnesses, because of the depth of our identification with this thing,” says Jon Voight, who plays John Wright, the storekeeper who was the town’s only white resident. “Obviously we could never stand in the same shoes. But in some way, because we’ve chosen to immerse ourselves in this story, we have that feeling.”

Which is a weighty one. Doctor--a gentle-voiced, dignified man of 54 who has devoted most of his life to Rosewood and who serves as an executive consultant on the film--says that when Singleton came to Florida to meet with the dozen or so elderly survivors, one of them told him: “Son, you were chosen to do this movie by God. So don’t try to take anything from it or add a whole lot to it. Just do the movie. It’ll take care of itself.”

Singleton lowers his eyes and exhales at the memory of that moment. “I just took a deep breath,” he says. “I was proud about it. After meeting the survivors, it was a lock. I definitely wanted to make the movie.”

Tracy Barone, the film’s executive producer and president of Peters Entertainment, thinks that had a profound effect on Singleton. “When you hear these people and witness what they go through emotionally in order to re-create the story, it’s a very powerful experience,” she says by phone from Los Angeles. “I think that cemented something in him that was greater than just the telling of this movie. It was a commitment to these people.”

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One of the most chilling aspects of the Rosewood saga is the way public knowledge of the incident was buried. For decades the survivors refused to talk about what had happened. “They had an intense fear of repercussions,” Doctor says. And with good reason, given that no one from the sheriff up to the governor tried to stop the weeklong attack, and racism in central Florida made life dangerous for blacks well through the ‘60s.

But underlying guilt and a reluctance to acknowledge such a flagrant piece of racism’s violent history also kept it hidden. “I have been talking about Rosewood all my life and only in the last 10 years has anyone of the opposite race shown any real interest,” Doctor says. “In fact, when I would talk about it earlier, people did not want to hear about it. They thought I was pointing a finger at them.”

He sees the movie as the final vindicating step in a series redressing all those years of silence: the St. Petersburg Times article; the legislative award, which engendered national news coverage; Michael D’Orso’s book “Like Judgment Day: The Ruin and Redemption of a Town Called Rosewood,” which came out this spring; and now a big-budget Hollywood film that should plaster the incident all over America’s consciousness.

“History has told us that unless you address an inequity, it is bound to repeat itself,” Doctor says solemnly. “Because if you allow something like this to pass, then what you are saying in essence is justice is not constant. And whatever was wrong in 1923 in Rosewood is wrong in 1996.”

‘Rosewood” was filmed about two hours from the site of the original town, now covered by swamp and scrubwoods. Driving away from the commercial billboard blare around Orlando to the set, you pass into another world; trailers and ambling shacks under spreading oaks dripping moss, open fields with horses and beef cattle behind barbed wire and cedar fences, woods of tall scruffy pines and sharp-leaved palmettos.

It’s dense, eerie, musky Southern country. It was often inhospitable for the film crew. Nighttime temperatures dropped into the 30s and 40s while the actors huddled in the woods or slogged through swamps. There were clouds of mosquitoes, and the crew taped up their pant legs to keep chiggers and ticks from burrowing under their skin. An assistant director was bitten by a rattlesnake and spent the night in a hospital.

As grueling as this was physically, it was even more so emotionally. The script sticks closely to the actual events, which are dramatic and often horrendous: There is a standoff in which Sylvester Carrier (Arnett Doctor’s uncle, played by Don Cheadle) holds off a white mob surrounding his home and family. Voight’s character, Wright, bands with two brothers to bring in a train in the middle of the night to carry out the women and children. The elderly Sarah Carrier, played by Esther Rolle, is killed by men she nursed in childhood. One man is shot and dismembered in front of the local sheriff, and a crippled elderly man is forced to dig his own grave. All of it really happened.

“The most powerful thing this movie has going for it is that it’s true,” screenwriter Greg Poirier says. “So it was really important to stick as closely as possible to the real thing, so people don’t have that out of saying, ‘Oh, they made a lot of it up, it wasn’t that bad.’ ”

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A former theater director (this is his first major screenplay), Poirier used hours of interviews with Rosewood survivors, contemporary newspaper accounts and a 200-plus-page report done commissioned by the Florida legislature in writing the script. In fact, Poirier says, the reality was so grim they had to tone it down.

“At least the violence I’m showing has a point,” Singleton says. “Only a few people in this movie get killed on screen, but it’s real, it’s emotional violence. You feel it.”

‘Rosewood” is a stretch in more ways than one for the 28-year-old director. “Boyz N the Hood,” “Poetic Justice” and “Higher Learning” were all urban contemporary films closely linked to his own experience. In this movie, he’s had to deal with a drama far removed from his own time and place. And with 84 speaking parts, hundreds of extras, houses burning and horses chasing trains, it’s also the most logistically complex film he’s ever made.

Singleton is aware of this, and if there’s some youthful bravado when he talks about how the large scale allows him to see “the clarity of my vision,” the reach into the past also seems to have genuinely inspired and excited him.

“I wanted to make it as cinematic as possible, like an epic, so you get a sense of what life in the 1920s was like,” he says. “It’s very fun to create a whole world, an entire time and place.”

On this April night, he’s shooting a scene with Ving Rhames, who plays a black World War I veteran named Mann who drifts through town, falls in love with a schoolteacher named Scrappie, played by Elise Neal, and becomes a reluctant hero as he is caught up in events. Mann has returned to Rosewood after the attack to find some 15 children hiding in the bushes with Scrappie.

A camera on a huge crane hovers through the trees, the crew scrambles through the prickly underbrush with smoke machines and cables, while the actors keep ducking in front of a space heater. Singleton mutters about time and working with the kids (happily rambunctious locals, only a few of them professional actors) but he seems happy with what he’s getting.

“Yeah, that’s good, that’s good,” he says, stooped over a monitor, bringing his fist down rhythmically as the camera pans slowly from one tearful face to the next. “Boom! Boom! That’s it!”

Around 3 a.m. he takes a full five minutes with Neal--who is a bit awed at working with actors such as Rhames (“Pulp Fiction,” “Striptease”) and Voight in her first major film role--about a tiny detail of the scene. “Now here I’ve been making you look beautiful through this whole movie,” he whispers, coaxing, even seductive. “Why won’t you just trust me on this a little bit?”

Neal and many of the African American actors have made some profound and disturbing connections in working on this film. “Being brought up in Memphis, I saw a whole lot of racism, in ways that maybe people in L.A. or New York don’t understand,” says Neal, adding that her grandparents told stories like “Rosewood’s.” “I didn’t have to reach too far to imagine what the people in Sumner were saying about us in Rosewood.”

“It’s real funny to see how far we’ve come and how far we haven’t come,” says Cheadle, who was Denzel Washington’s manic sidekick Mouse in “Devil in a Blue Dress” “This is not that long ago. In Kansas, my mom used to be able to go to the amusement park one day out of every year. It was called Nigger Day. But my grandfather would never let them go. They didn’t know till they were much older that this is what it was called, they just knew he wouldn’t let them go, and they thought he was the meanest man around. But my mother said, ‘He would rather us hate him than know that America hated us that much.’ ”

The fact that the burning of black churches across the South should be in the news in the months before “Rosewood” opens might seem terribly ironic. But when asked about it recently, Singleton says it doesn’t surprise him. “We live in the same country that existed 73 years ago. I don’t see any irony in it at all. If white men are still burning down churches in the South on a regular basis, then I don’t really think things have changed that much.”

Singleton believes that the similarity between current headlines and the historical events shown in “Rosewood” could increase the film’s impact.

“I think that enlightened people will make a connection,” he says. “And I think there are other people who just don’t want to hear it. . . . They definitely don’t want to think about the horror of what came before, and of the fact that what came before is evident now also.”

“Rosewood” ventures into uncomfortable territory by showing a piece of inhumanity not in Germany, South Africa or Bosnia, but in our own history. “It is very easy for Americans to look at a film like ‘Schindler’s List,’ ” says Rhames, an imposing man with a subterranean voice. “But this is something that’s at home. Malcolm said the chickens have come home to roost, and this film has some of that. I think it’s really gonna force Americans to look at America in a light that we’ve tried to ignore.”

But this is not just a tale of racist whites vs. victimized blacks. Rhames’ character, Mann, one of the few non-historical roles in the film, is an amalgamation of contemporary accounts of newly militant black WWI veterans and of the real Sylvester (nicknamed Man), an independent, strong-willed man who demanded respect to a degree that seems extraordinary for the time. For Singleton, Mann and Sylvester represent “a spectrum of black man in American history who black people know of, but who never really get anything to do in American cinema. Strong black men who have honor and dignity and fight for what’s right.”

But if Mann and Sylvester are the film’s heroes, it is Voight’s character Wright, along with the white Bryce brothers, who also help save the women and children. “In telling the story we have tried . . . to not only re-create it as truthfully as possible, but to present it in a balanced light,” Barone says. “The ultimate message is a hopeful one.”

Hollywood can bring an aggrandizing self-consciousness to a subject like racism, but it can also bring attention to serious issues that they might never get otherwise. “Schindler’s List” and “JFK” are two obvious examples. “It’s Batman joins Rosewood,” Peters says. “We make movies that make millions of dollars, so when we focus on Rosewood it’s suddenly a story that has enormous power.”

Peters says he is talking to ABC’s Ted Koppel about doing a televised town meeting on Rosewood when the film is released in the fall, and he is clearly counting on controversy to bring people into the theaters.

But there also seems to be a healthy dose of sincerity at work.

“I hope this movie will inspire people to be curious and investigate our history,” Cheadle says. “We seem to be in a resurgence of racism and xenophobia and conflict right now. I think if you understand why, you’re better able to deal with it.”

“We haven’t really been able to truly acknowledge or make amends for this part of our past,” Voight says. “And maybe this movie will move us to that. I mean, we’re talking about a movie, and nothing but a movie. But that’s the prayer.”

It’s 7 a.m., and Singleton is as quick and intent as he was at 10 p.m., maybe more so, because he’s about to lose the cold, white morning light and at 7:30 everyone goes into overtime. He wants to get one last shot in, showing Voight walking down the road, then panning down to show Akosua Busia, who plays Wright’s mistress Jewel, lying raped and dead in the bushes.

“The audience will be going, ‘Look! Look!,’ but he won’t see her,” Singleton says excitedly. “This is one of those scenes the studio has been trying to get me not to do, because of budget, so I’ve been basically stealing shots. These are the important ones, the ironic ones, they hit home. So I’ve been doing them all anyway.”

The volume of his voice doesn’t rise but the intensity does. “I think maybe the movie will bear the brunt of a lot of people--like the people around here--who will say, ‘Why you bringing that up? Why you talking about this?’ But why not? If you don’t talk about it, then it could happen again and again and again. It’s more than why not. It’s like the Holocaust. Because you can never forget.”

He settles down slightly. “Everyone’s going to have a different reaction to the film, black people, white people. But it’s a truly American story. And on the other hand it’s a human story. It’s the same deal.”


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