An unblinking look at the wages of racism, “Rosewood” absorbingly recounts a ghastly and little-known chapter of 20th-century American history. Although it increasingly succumbs to a tendency toward conventional movie heroics, John Singleton’s fourth film tells a story of rare interest and tragedy — how a bunch of rednecks deliberately destroyed a small, nearly all-black Florida town in 1923 — and does so with reasonable balance and conviction. While it is open to question how much mainstream white audiences will want to see a film in which the vast majority of white characters are despicable crackers, killers and thugs, Singleton’s name, good reviews and historical nature of the picture should attract discerning viewers across racial lines, in addition to the special interest that will be generated in the black community, especially among students.
For better and worse, “Rosewood” reminds of the often Southern-set social dramas Martin Ritt used to make, both in its motivating political conviction and in its often broad characterizations and stylistic straightforwardness. Ultimately, however, the film’s ambition, urgency and acute observations prevail over the many stock elements to forge an estimable work that is notably serious and analytical for a Hollywood-produced film in this day and age.
The story of what happened in the eponymous central Florida town was essentially unknown until the early 1980s, when some local newspaper articles and a subsequent “60 Minutes” report revealed what had taken place 60 years before: Spurred by a white woman’s lie that she had been beaten by a black stranger, the inflamed citizens of her town launched a four-day siege on nearby Rosewood that burned it to the ground, left probably several dozen blacks dead and sent the rest fleeing for their lives into the woods and swamps, never to return. Out of shame and fear of reprisal, few who lived through the terror seem to have spoken of it openly.
Drawing on the childhood memories of some of the elderly survivors and the offspring of others, Singleton and scenarist Gregory Poirier have necessarily fabricated many of the specifics, but apparently not the essentials. The one obvious invention is a quiet, imposing stranger, Mr. Mann (Ving Rhames), who rides into Rosewood on Dec. 31, 1922, and is welcomed into the home of the Carrier family, whose most prominent members are the mother Sarah (Esther Rolle), her piano teacher son Sylvester and the sprightly 17-year-old Scrappie (Elise Neal).
Singleton takes the time early on to relish details of life in the unusual community, which, in Paul Sylbert’s evocative production design, consists of a patchwork of houses on widely separated lots amid many trees. It also is a relatively prosperous “heaven on Earth” for Southern blacks, as one points out, especially compared with Sumner, a nearby white trash factory town.
Apparently the only whites in Rosewood are John Wright (Jon Voight), his two boys by his late wife and his new wife. Although he is a dominant financial force and has some residual plantation attitudes, including having backroom sex with the black teenage clerk at his general store, Wright is considered “all right” by his neighbors, most of whom he counts as friends.
Trouble starts when Fannie Taylor (Catherine Kellner), the trampy wife of young James (Loren Dean), is beaten by her lover (a quick cameo by Robert Patrick), only to take hysterically to the Sumner streets and scream that “a nigger” did it. This quickly escalates into a belief that she was raped and a raid by the crazed vigilantes on Rosewood, culminating in the lynching of an innocent black man for allegedly having given a ride to a stranger who may have been an escaped convict and Fannie’s assailant.
But what seems like it should be the end is just the beginning for the liquor-swilling, gun-toting mob, which launches a pitched battle at what the boys view as the unduly nice house of the uppity Sylvester. The shocking aftermath of this bloody shootout leads to the black women and children escaping into the night, to be helped eventually by a surprising collaboration between Mann and Wright, who share a wary respect for one another due to their mutual military backgrounds.
“Rosewood” most fundamentally reveals a heinous crime that was committed solely out of racial hatred. But it also shades the picture, detailing an intolerable class jealousy felt by bottom-of-the-barrel whites for better-off blacks; the difficulty a relatively reasonable but weak sheriff (Michael Rooker) might have had controlling his town’s most unruly elements at a time when white-on-black crime was overlooked; and the way people of both races could live in close proximity, almost as extended family, and still be terribly at odds.
Mildly detrimental, however, is the decision to turn the picture into a Western whenever some action is required. Rhames’ tall-in-the-saddle character is literally a Mann with no first name, a typical stranger who packs a pistol, stirs up suspicion, behaves heroically and quickly wins the affections of the local sweet young thing, in this case Scrappie. The climax featuring bad guys racing their horses to catch up with a chugging train is straight out of the Old West, while the surprise reappearance at the end of a character long assumed dead smacks of a misguided attempt to place an inappropriate happy spin on a crushingly tragic tale.
All the same, Rhames cuts an impressive figure as the war veteran looking for a place in the world, and is moving in the scene in which he declares his feelings for Scrappie before heading off into the woods. Voight is very effective as a man profoundly torn between his affection for his black neighbors and his need to maintain his standing with his fellow whites, no matter how loathsome. Other performances are strongly expressive of basically one-dimensional attitudes on the sides of good and evil.
Stylistically, pic is very straightforward, but it tells its story clearly and comprehensively, keeping its characters and diverse story elements in good balance as it brings some sorrowful history alive.