In the first week of January 1923, Rosewood, a black township in central
Florida, was burned to the ground by a lynching mob from Sumner, a predominantly
white sawmill town three miles away. It was one of the many dark moments
in American history, one that, needless to say, was opportunely forgotten
by history books - not to mention the Legislature: it took over seventy
years to bring the "case" to (some sort of) justice.
No more. Unless you are the most extremist supporter of vigilantism, you
can thank John Singleton for that.
When director Singleton came out with "Boyz N the Hood", he was
praised as a "vibrant new voice" eager, and ready, to tackle the
Black Experience in America as few, if any, had done before. "Poetic
Justice" and "Higher Learning" confirmed just that: the man
was morally tenacious, intelligent, ferocious. His passion and anger accounted
for a filmic style that was at once fluid and rugged, serenely assertive
and angry as a stutter. But hey, according to one of his actors, the man
never finished a sentence in his life.
He does now. If anything, "Rosewood" shows a maturation of Singleton
as a director. Shot in a mostly classic style, brimming with top-notch performances,
the film combines epic sweep with intimate moments, resulting in a relentlessly
powerful work. Channelling it better, perhaps, phrasing it better, certainly,
Singleton has lost nothing of his rage. How could he, with such a subject
Married to a sawmill worker, a white woman from Sumner, is beaten up by
her rough-sex day-time lover. At a loss as to how to explain her bruises,
she runs into the street outside her house, screaming she's been aggressed
by a "nigra." Though they all suspect, or know, Fannie Taylor
is a slut, it doesn't take long for the men of Sumner to turn into an uncontrollable
vigilante mob. One black man after another is corralled, brutalized, forced
to dig their graves then slaughtered. People are shot, hanged, corpses are
burnt, ears are cut off.
Enough? No. The hatred grows, nearby towns join in the "fun".
While most of the women and children of Rosewood fled into the woods then,
helped by a handful of whites, escaped on board a train, other black women
were hanged, or raped then killed with their babies and their bodies left
on the side of the road. Family entertainment, you might call it, as fathers
bring their sons to enjoy the action and teach them how to tie a noose.
"Fun" was had by all - white mobs, that is. Houses were burnt,
and churches, and the school, and the Masonic lodge. By the end of the rampage,
the only house still standing in Rosewood belongs to a white shopkeeper,
John Wright and his wife.
Singleton does a great job at individualizing the members of both the mob
and the Rosewood township, and all the supporting actors, from Michael Rooker
to Bruce McGill, finely delineate them. It is refreshing to see "caring"
Jon Voight discard his aura of saintliness and play a guy who knows that,
as white man in a town blackship, he has a good gig going (he is first discovered
screwing away a black young woman). Ultimately, however, a sense of decency
will prevail, along with a (grudgingly) growing respect for a black drifter
If most of the characters in "Rosewood" are based on real people,
Mann, played by Ving Rhames, is a composite of all the World War I veterans
who came back from the European front, determined "not to take that
shit anymore". Here, Singleton may be loading the dice a bit, but this
is a minor quibble: the story - and the movie - are too powerful for it
to be a problem.