Film Scouts Interviews

John Singleton on "Rosewood"

by Henri Béhar

Buy this video from
FILM SCOUTS: Were you aware of the 1923 Rosewood massacre before producer Jon Peters approached you?

JOHN SINGLETON: Only briefly. I had heard different stories like this before; but I hadn't heard of Rosewood until I read an article in Esquire Magazine. Soon after that, Jon called me up and said he had the rights to the survivors' story, would I be interested in making a movie on it?

FS: What's left of the real Rosewood?

JS: Nothing. It doesn't exist anymore. All that remains is the name on the local maps, the sign on the road and John Wright's house, down the road to Cedar Key. Otherwise there are just a few trailers parked there.

We went down there, some people came out of their trailers, like, "Whaddya doin' here?", you know? Arnett Doctor, who is a descendant of some Rosewood survivor, was with me and brought a six-pack of beer. Down there when you bring a six-pack of beer, you're cool.

FS: Any misgivings about tackling the project?

JS: Hell, yeah. I felt that unless I had the wherewithal - and the courage - to make it an epic and do what we needed to do, it would do more harm than good. But we ended up making the film we wanted to make. This is a big movie, you know. We built two towns on location.

FS: That must have been stressful.

JS: Oh, yeah. There was an enormous amount of stress. I couldn't just prep' this movie in two and a half months then go out and shoot it. We worked for at least a year and a half before we even shot.

When you're doing something that takes place in a world that doesn't exist anymore, you have to be very meticulous, very detailed in recreating that world at that time.

So the only real trepidation I had before I started 'Rosewood' was that I really wanted to make a picture with some scope, not give it a movie-of-the-week treatment. *Big*, you know. And at the same time audacious. Kind of intimate, too: the camera is often close to the characters.

And it was a very interesting movie for me to do. First of all, I'd never been away from home as long as I had while working on this motion picture. Second, I think 'Rosewood' reflects a maturation for me as a film maker. Getting the whole "Boyz 'n' the Hood" monkey off my back. I'm from South Central in LA, I can write a movie about the street and everything without any research; I can go back in my memory and I can do that in a heartbeat. But one thing I wanted to do here was to try and do something that was totally not in my element, and attempt to excel at that, so that I can move on to other things.

'Rosewood' gave me the opportunity to work with great craftsmen who've been in the business for over 25 years. Paul Sylbert, who did the production design and built the sets, worked with Alfred Hitchcock and Elia Kazan! And for me, I feel like I'm part of a legacy. I want to be a true American film maker, in the sense that my films tell stories that can only really happen in America. They aim to speak to the universality of the human experience, but they're quintessentially American films.

Looking at the picture now, I still have my problems with it. You know, filmmakers like to tinker with something as long as possible.

FS: What problems ?

JS: People say it's violent. I don't think it is, and certainly not as violent as it was being there. I wanted to make you feel you were there.

But then maybe Americans are afraid of it because of their own racial problems. They're all fucked up over race, you know. A lot of white Americans are in denial of what they've been raised to think about black people.

And black people are still suffering the effects of slavery and institutionalized racism.

So we have a whole country full of dysfunctional people. One set of group in total denial, and everyone else... It's totally schizophrenic.

The only thing I'd change in retrospect in this movie, I would have the lover in the whole movie. I'd have him a member of the mob. That's the only thing I would have done differently. I would have had him be one of the most zealous member.

FS: Were you forced to tone down the violence?

JS: No. I had planned a lot of stuff that I really wanted to do. I wanted to show what happens when a lynch mob comes down, how erratic a lynch mob would be. Yet you don't see any women and children killed in this thing.

FS: It's very unusual, however, and upsetting, to see a woman hanging from a tree.

JS: Yeah.

FS: And she's there in several shots.

JS: Yeah. But you don't see her going up on the pole. I felt I had a responsibility to stick it as hard as I could, but I wasn't trying to make a horror movie, I wasn't going for shock value. Just putting people there, in the position of those who owned and had what they had.

That's the only reason I made this movie, man. 'Cause I met the people who lived it. And they sat up and talked to me, and I felt really humbled. I got really emotional about what they had to say. About growing in a town where they owned property and owned their homes, and it was all taken away from them in a matter of a day. 'Cause they were black. I didn't grow up under Jim Crow. Talking to them, I knew this was something I just needed to do.

FS: You do try to keep a fair balance between the racial problem and the economic one.

JS: There are several things I try to keep a balance about, and at different levels. I wanted to show racism intrinsically linked to money and economics. There's a white guy from Sumner who says about Sylvester Carrier: "He got a piano, and I don't."

You find the character Bruce McGill plays probably one of the most repulsive people that you've ever seen on screen. At the same time, you understand him as a father. He doesn't know any better. He doesn't know any better. The scene where he teaches his son how to tie a noose is chilling. It's fatherly love to him. That's the best evil. He doesn't know he's evil.

I have no problem with Ving Rhames's character being called "Mann". He's a hero. He is based on all the World War I veterans that came back to the South during the '10s and the 20s from being overseas fighting in the first world war. If you read newspaper accounts of Florida, if you study American history, there were a lot of race riots, then. Those that came back were determined not to take that shit anymore. It was a whole new mind set they had.

Yet he is ready to leave Rosewood before the shit happens. "I've been in a war, I don't want to be in another one."

The John Wright character was another exercise in balance. The first time you see him, he's screwing a young sister. I just wanted to show this guy was a de facto slave owner of this town. He's got a good deal going on with these people, you know. (chuckles) That was a way to undermine the "Caring Jon Voight" image most of us have.

Yet, he's the one, he and his wife, that help save the women and children of Rosewood. His rapport with Ving Rhames is quite interesting. They don't end up falling into each other's arms. There is still a wariness there, but also, at some point, however grudgingly, respect. Mutual.

FS: You haven't lost any of your anger, have you?

JS: I hope not.

FS: You just channel it better.

JS: (laughs) And one day I'll do it even better. I'm getting more and more concise. A bit more subtle, perhaps?

FS: Now what ?

JS: Now I want to do something... maybe not totally light-hearted, but more genre-like, so I can get the whole "tragedist" monkey off my back. "Oh, wow, he's not gonna lay a mental bomb on us every time, is he?" A mental bomb. A movie where you guys won't have to say, 'What is the message of this movie?' You know what I mean? (Laughs) Not every movie has to speak for the whole of the black experience. I do feel that if people did not know - a black man - or have a preconceived notion of who I was, they'd look at my movies in a whole different context.

I try to take bold steps and do... basically what I'd like to see.

So my next movie I want to have fun with.

FS: And that's going to be...?

JS: "Shaft."

FS: Excuse me?

JS: "Shaft."

FS: As in (actor) Richard Roundtree?

JS: Yeah. And it's going to be shot in New York City.

FS: In the '90s?

JS: In the '90s. It's a '90s story.

FS: Why Shaft? What wasn't said before that you want to say about him?

JS: I just want to have some fun! I want to make a movie about a young man - he's black, he's in his late 20s, he's in New York City and he's bad!

I'm not just going to make it just for schlocky action stuff, you know? It's not going to be a typical "action movie". More like an adventure movie.

FS: When did you see the original "Shaft" for the first time?

JS: I don't know if I saw it in a movie theatre or on video. I can't remember. But I saw it as a kid because, you know, my father was the genuine article.

FS: Pardon?

JS: My father has a way about him. He even looks like Richard Roundtree. He's very dark-skinned. You saw "Boyz 'n' the Hood", the guy who's staking the house and they shoot at him? That's my father. He has this theory about Shaft: "You know how they made that movie? I was walking up the street, somebody saw me and they went ahead and made that movie." (laughs)

FS: So how do you see your Shaft?

JS: He's just gotta have a strong presence. He has to exude sexuality. He has to just walk on the screen and all the women want to fuck him. He's just gotta be...the Man. Do you know what I mean?

FS: You bet. Anyone in mind?

JS: Not yet.

FS: You mean nobody called?

JS: They all did! (laughs) Whoever he is, he's gonna be a superstar, even if we go with an unknown.

But what I'm attempting to do here is make a real New York movie. A contemporary picture, that shows the whole of New York.

Most films generally show one aspect of New York. They're all shot in one borough, or one neighborhood which, like Woody Allen's, has no black people in it.

Whereas Shaft is a real cosmopolitan kind of person. He can float to Harlem, Brooklyn, Central Park West, the Village. He knows and encounters all kinds of different people. So it's a real cosmopolitan kind of picture.

Back to Interviews

Look for Search Tips

Copyright 1994-2008 Film Scouts LLC
Created, produced, and published by Film Scouts LLC
Film Scouts® is a registered trademark of Film Scouts LLC
All rights reserved.

Suggestions? Comments? Fill out our Feedback Form.