Rosewood (United States, 1997)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Rosewood, central Florida, 1923. The town's population numbered about 120, mostly black. It was a prosperous, happy community until a January day when one woman's lie set off a chain of events that would have devastating results. That woman was Fanny Taylor, and her false claim to have been assaulted by a black man resulted in the formation of a lynch mob that headed for Rosewood with arson and murder on their minds. Before the week was over, blood was shed and the town was in ashes.

The quote that was foremost in my mind as I sat down to watch the fact-based Rosewood came from director John Singleton: "I am concerned about absolute historical accuracy to an extent, but I am really more worried about being truthful to the essence of what happened at Rosewood... I am making a movie that people will respond to." Indeed, this motion picture, which combines the flavor of a John Ford western with Singleton's uniquely visceral power, is an epic that stands alone in the latter weeks of a dismal movie winter.

Following his dramatic debut in 1991 with Boyz 'N the Hood, Singleton attempted two other contemporary tales -- one was a love story (Poetic Justice) and the other was an ensemble piece set on a college campus (Higher Learning). Neither came close to the impact of the director's first feature. With Rosewood, however, Singleton has once again fulfilled the promise he exhibited when the Academy honored him with a Best Director nomination. Despite an occasional narrative hiccup, this is a rich and moving motion picture.

If Singleton takes liberties with the historical account of what happened at Rosewood (and that account is murky at best -- the death count differs greatly depending on which source is being consulted), it's in the name of dramatic license, and it works. This is a deeply affecting tale about the naked emotional and physical devastation that can be wrought by racial hatred. But it is also a story of hope that highlights the indomitable nature of the human spirit and the fraternity that can bind together two apparently different people. Rosewood does not glamorize evil, but neither does it demonize those who practice it. Singleton is careful to present a balanced and believable picture of the participants on both sides. The result presents a forceful message without ever preaching.

Jon Voight and Ving Rhames, both of whom appeared in last summer's blockbuster, Mission Impossible, lead an impressive cast. Voight is John Wright, the head of the only white household in Rosewood. Wright is a store owner who finds himself torn between cultures. The blacks view him with suspicion and distrust; the whites see him as a traitor to his race. One aspect of Rosewood focuses on his attempts to find solace for his tormented soul. Meanwhile, Rhames plays Mann, the only entirely fictional character in the film. A wandering World War I veteran, he comes to Rosewood seeking peace. What he finds instead is another war. And, after being decorated for saving the lives of men on the battlefield in Europe, here he finds himself fighting to rescue women and children from an equally implacable enemy.

While both Voight and Rhames are exemplary, they are ably supported. Don Cheadle (Devil in a Blue Dress) is Sylvester Carrier, an outspoken citizen who refuses to let the white man walk all over him. Esther Rolle brings dignity and a quiet sadness to the role of Sarah Carrier, Sylvester's mother. Michael Rooker plays a sheriff torn between his own distaste for black people and his growing horror at what is transpiring. And Bruce McGill portrays one of the most chillingly realistic crackers ever to appear on screen. His is a startling performance because he defies tradition by not going over-the-top.

While Rosewood must be seen as a cohesive whole to be fully appreciated, there are isolated moments that stand out because of their haunting power. One of the most startling depicts white folk picnicking and frolicking while Rosewood burns in the background. In another scene, McGill's character carefully teaches his son how to make a noose for a lynching -- one of the essential lessons he must learn to become a man. There are, in fact, times when Rosewood is reminiscent of Schindler's List. There's a kernel of truth that both films have in common -- the theme of the duality of human nature: the capacity for great good and great evil, boundless love and infinite hatred. And, while this film is not as well-paced or tightly-structured as Spielberg's Holocaust drama, it evokes many of the same feelings and emotions. It is an important film that should not be missed.

Rosewood (United States, 1997)

Run Time: 2:22
U.S. Release Date: 1997-02-21
MPAA Rating: "R" (Violence, Sexual Content)
Genre: DRAMA
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1