The need to bear witness against atrocity, to testify that something wicked this way came, is the powerful drive that animates “Rosewood,” the story of an American tragedy so horrific no one talked about it for more than half a century.
Hidden for all that time was what took place in a small Florida town during the first week of 1923, when a prosperous African American community of several hundred people was obliterated in an orgy of racism and violence. At least six blacks and two whites were killed, many more wounded, with the survivors of that burnt-out place fleeing into pine wood swamps, too traumatized to ever return home.
Directed by “Boyz N the Hood’s” John Singleton, “Rosewood” is an impressive film that is significant both for bringing its story to a wide audience and also because, as Singleton has acknowledged, “no black man has had the opportunity before to direct a film like this in this context, and on so wide a canvas.”
Yet despite its real virtues, the nagging feeling remains that “Rosewood” illustrates more than it illuminates. As written by Gregory Poirier and produced by Jon Peters, whose credits are mostly of the blockbuster variety, the film is broader and more simplistic than it needs to be, settling more than it should for obvious emotions and situations.
Anger, obviously, leaves little room for subtlety, and it was perhaps not possible for Singleton and company to be dispassionate in the face of their overpowering need to show and tell. And because its awful story is difficult to erase from the mind, “Rosewood” is finally stronger than the awkwardness and the flaws in its telling. It’s just unfortunate there isn’t less of that to overcome.
A quiet hamlet in western Florida, Rosewood is a place where large, close-knit African American families own their own land and businesses. But even though music teacher Sylvester Carrier (Don Cheadle of “Devil in a Blue Dress”) is modern enough to risk standing up to white people in nearby Sumner, his mother Sarah (Esther Rolle) warns him that no matter what he might think, “times ain’t never changed for crackers.”
As determined as Sylvester to believe that things can be different is Mann (Ving Rhames), a Shane-like stranger who rides into town, catches the eye of winsome schoolteacher Scrappy (Elise Neal) and thinks about spending some of the money he earned as a soldier in World War I to bid on a piece of land and settle down. An actor of imposing presence, Rhames can be hard when he needs to be but also softens enough to make his courtship scenes with Scrappy warm and affecting.
Mann’s rival in the land auction is Rosewood’s only white resident, merchant John Wright (Jon Voight), pithily described as “half-way decent for a white person, if there was such a thing.” The concern he has for his black customers doesn’t stop Wright from exploiting them, and though Voight tries to bring life to this conflicted, ambivalent character, the well-meaning storekeeper estranged from a Bible-reading wife is too much of a stock character for his efforts to succeed.
Similarly, the part of Fanny Taylor (Catherine Kellner), though historically accurate, is overly familiar. The sluttish wife of a sawmill worker, her patently false claim of being raped by a black man is the spark that starts the fire that alcohol, mob hysteria and racism turn into a monstrous conflagration.
If Fanny’s character has a soap opera quality to it, the same is true for the town’s unbridled racists, particularly the vicious, bearded Duke (Bruce McGill). Though these people undoubtedly existed, there is an obviousness and a lack of subtlety about the way they’re depicted on screen that diminishes “Rosewood’s” dramatic impact.
What has undeniable force are the sequences of torture and violence that make up the heart of the film. Singleton’s direction, Johnny E. Jensen’s cinematography and Bruce Cannon’s editing convincingly capture the feeling of a nightmare time when--as a survivor interviewed on a Discovery Channel documentary called “The Rosewood Massacre” starkly put it--"they killed everything that was black.”
Even here, however, “Rosewood” can’t avoid overreaching, with shots of a drunken white mob intercut with a black child’s birthday party. And the closer the film gets to the end, the more Hollywood it becomes, unable to resist a few show-biz plot twists that are closer to the spirit of Peters’ “Money Train” than to the aspirations of the rest of the picture.
Still, incompletely realized though it is, “Rosewood’s” story is as difficult to ignore as it is to completely embrace. Its message continues to be relevant, and its true-to-history emphasis on African Americans standing up for themselves, as well as its portrayal of interracial cooperation, are laudable. But understanding that this is a story that needs telling doesn’t cancel the wish that it was a bit better told.
* MPAA rating: R, for violence and some sexuality. Times guidelines: The violence is at times of the torture variety, including the cutting off of an ear.
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Jon Voight: John Wright
Ving Rhames: Mann
Don Cheadle: Sylvester Carrier
Bruce McGill: Duke Purdy
Loren Dean: James Taylor
Esther Rolle: Aunt Sarah
Elise Neal: Scrappie
Michael Rooker: Sheriff Walker
Catherine Kellner: Fanny Taylor
A Peters Entertainment production, released by Warner Bros. Director John Singleton. Producer Jon Peters. Executive producer Tracy Barone. Screenplay Gregory Poirier. Cinematographer Johnny E. Jensen. Editor Bruce Cannon. Costumes Ruth E. Carter. Music John Williams. Production design Paul Sylbert. Art director Chris Gorak. Set decorator Dan May. Running time: 2 hours, 15 minutes.
* In general release throughout Southern California.