Film and TV

Making History

The vision of race war that Boyz N the Hood director John Singleton conjures up in Rosewood comes at a precarious moment in our national history. Polarized reactions to the O.J. Simpson verdicts have demonstrated how deep the rift between black and white remains--forty years after the civil-rights movement hit stride. The recent epidemic of black-church burnings in the South reveals a virulent bigotry some thought had long since passed into the back pages. The bitter legislative war over affirmative action and minority entitlements has no end in sight. While white-supremacist militias reload their weapons, academics of both races publish hot-blooded essays about the myths of interracial friendship and the abject failure of integration.

This is just the time, Singleton reckons, to revisit a village called Rosewood, Florida, in early January 1923.

Back then, a lynch mob of angry crackers, inflamed by moonshine and the false accusation by a white woman that a black stranger had beaten and raped her, swept through the all-black town, burning houses, shooting babies and hanging people. In three days of mayhem, whites from nearby Sumner murdered anywhere from 50 to 140 black Rosewood residents and wiped the place off the map. Not much else is known about this outrage, which remained a well-guarded secret of perpetrators and survivors alike for six decades. But since 1983, when the CBS news show 60 Minutes reported on it, the Rosewood massacre has steadily gained currency as a major African-American grievance, still shrouded in mystery and changing with each retelling. It has periodically been called "an American holocaust" and "another My Lai."

The movie Rosewood is, in Hollywood's treacherous phrase, "based on an actual incident." But is it history? Well, what do you think? No one now doubts either the scope or the sheer terrorism of the bloodletting, but the huge, melodramatic liberties Singleton has taken with a tragic story that's been stitched together from scant testimony and dimmed by time are everywhere evident.

Just for a start, his two heroes are fabrications.
The first, unblemished one is a black drifter named Mann (Ving Rhames), who rides into town on the eve of the trouble exactly like an Old West gunslinger of yore. This is 1923, in central Florida, but Mann (a name with obvious racial and social reverberations) has got the horse, the hat, and the pair of pistols--.45 automatics this time around instead of six-shooters. He's got a pocketful of cash because he fought in World War I, and when he finds Rosewood, he finds the black Garden of Eden--a prosperous, self-sufficient place where a man might buy land, put down roots, take a wife and live happily ever after among his people--all in splendid isolation from cracker, redneck and Klansman. Here's the old frontier mythology recast as Jim Crow nostalgia--that warm, fuzzy feeling for segregated America that revisionist black scholars have been talking up the past few years. When outspoken Sylvester Carrier (Devil in a Blue Dress's Don Cheadle) sits down to play his piano, you can practically feel the entire proud surge of African-American history on the soundtrack.

Mann doesn't get his wish for bliss and freedom, of course. When the slavering, slouching, tobacco-spitting whites--hordes of them--attack, the tall, powerful stranger is eventually pressed into service as an avenging angel. By movie's end, he's shooting whooping peckerwoods off the backs of their wagons like Randolph Scott cleaning up Dodge City. That Mann never existed in the real-life Rosewood of murder, victimhood and mass graves seems not to matter to Singleton, rookie screenwriter Gregory Poirier, hairdresser-turned-producer Jon Peters or any of the happy band at Warner Bros.: They invented Mann for uplift's sake, for catharsis.

The film's second hero, shot through with ambiguities and faults, is the product of an even more obvious dramatic calculation. John Wright (Jon Voight) is the lone white resident of Rosewood (if you don't count his wife and children), and he lives there only to profiteer. Like Rod Steiger in The Pawnbroker, Wright (a name with several implications of its own) is the soulless shopkeeper who preys on blacks--he even beds his teenage salesgirl--but he is not beyond redemption. Because the makers of Rosewood don't particularly want to alienate every white person who's bought a ticket with a relentless wave of Caucasian savagery defiling the black Eden, they eventually turn John Wright into the mid-Florida version of the Good German--the convert who, finally horrified by the violence, hides wounded blacks in his house and joins forces with Mann to get survivors out of the swamps and off to distant Gainesville. John Wright did actually exist; whether he performed as admirably as the movie portrays is very much in question.

When it's not relieving white liberal guilt, Rosewood is busy inflaming black rage. A kindly grandmother (Esther Rolle) is shot dead on her front porch. The most poisonous redneck I've ever seen in a movie, a boozy Neanderthal named Duke (Bruce McGill), shows his bewildered young son how to tie a noose for a lynching. A stupid, mean-spirited white sheriff (Michael Rooker, late of Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer) sells his conscience out to bloody mob rule. The slutty wife who foments the whole tragedy with her bogus rape charge (Catherine Keller) is the very picture of devious white-womanhood.

In telling this tricky story at all, Singleton and Poirier have their hearts in the right place--and the director, for one, could sure use a success after stumbling twice with Poetic Justice and Higher Learning. But what happened in Rosewood in 1923 is much too important to jack up with Hollywood gloss and synthetic movie-of-the-week heroism. In the absence of facts, Singleton is merchandising some brand-new folklore.

Did the CIA kill Kennedy or peddle crack in the ghettos? Nobody knows for sure. Did a fantastic avenging angel named Mr. Mann redeem the honor of Rosewood, Florida, for future generations? Only in the movies. And the movies, for better or worse, are remembered more vividly than history.

Screenplay by Gregory Poirier. Directed by John Singleton. With Ving Rhames, Jon Voight, Don Cheadle, Bruce McGill and Loren Dean.

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Bill Gallo
Contact: Bill Gallo