Rosewood is a gripping story of a dark page in American history. If the story was not true, it would never have been told. The gratuitous violence and the victimization of Blacks as law enforcement stands by may seem too unreal to be characterized as American. On the surface, Rosewood is the story of how a Florida town was wiped off the map by mob violence catalyzed by racism and a law enforcement that is reduced to spectator. This, however, is too simplistic a characterization of a movie that is also a canvass for the panoply of the American social pathologies of adultery, racism, and rage.
When the movie begins, a well-built stranger, Mr. Mann (played by Ving Rhames of Pulp Fiction acclaim), arrives on horseback at the fork of a road. He has to make a decision. One road leads to Summer, the all-White company town populated with people who barely own anything of value. The other road leads to Rosewood, the predominantly African American town that epitomizes the American dream of small town America. Black folks of Rosewood own their homes, farms, and businesses. A privileged Black community situated in close proximity to an envious and underprivileged White community forms the nexus from which emerges horrors that would shame any civilized society.
Mr. Mann makes a turn for Rosewood but he arrives at an inopportune time. A Black convict had recently escaped from a prison chain-link gang. So the residents of Rosewood are not the only ones on edge, but local law enforcement is also on the lookout for strange Black males. In this atmosphere of fear, a White adulteress, Fanny Taylor (played by Catherine Kellner), is severely beaten by her boyfriend on New Year’s Eve of 1922. Fearing the reaction of her husband, she blames her beating on a Black man. It was enough justification to bring out the worst of racist rage.
The men of Summer engaged in an orgy of death and destruction that would have made Attila the Hun proud. Blacks were hanged, shot, and burned. By the end of the first week of 1923, Rosewood was no longer a community. The victims were too terrified to speak about the horrors and the perpetrators and the larger community were too ashamed that such savagery could emerge in the midst of civilization. All of this happened in the presence of the local Sheriff, Mr. Walker (played by Michael Rooker).Instead of just focusing on the events as a historical documentary would, Director John Singleton exposes the complexity of social relations. The only White man who lives in Rosewood, Mr. Wright (played by John Voight), is having an affair with a Black teenager, Scrappie (Elise Neal). The music teacher, Sylvester Carrier (Don Cheadle) is torn between personal safety and moral stand. Sheriff Walker is portrayed as law enforcement that is helpless in the face of White mob violence.
The acting of Voight, Cheadle, and Rooker is superb. The cinematography is so convincing that one would think the sceneries were actual. Composer, John Williams, known for his bombastic patriotic themes, displayed a much softer touch in this composition. Rosewood is both convicting and redemptive. In the actions of Mr. Wright and some of the residents of Summer, we see that Blacks, in their plight, are always assisted by some White folks, even if their intentions of these Whites are suspect. This is the redeeming value of Rosewood. In the action of Sheriff Walker is the resurrection of the historical relationship between African Americans and law enforcement. African Americans have a historical memory that tells them not to trust law enforcement.
If Rosewood did not have a long run at the theaters, it is understandable. The story, though true, is difficult for Blacks and Whites. For Blacks, it re-opens old wounds; for Whites, it resurrects a shameful past they would rather not revisit. Sadly, for both groups, Rosewood will not be the last of its kind.
Rosewood. A 1997 movie directed by John Singleton and Glenn Randall, Jr. Produced by: Noelle cahpin, Tracy Barone, and Jon Peters. Distributed by Warner Bros.