"Between 1880 and 1923, an African-American was lynched every two-and-a-half days in the U.S."
- historian Larry Rivers
Up until 1923, Rosewood, located in central Florida, was a thriving town with a population of 120, mostly blacks who owned and farmed the surrounding land. However, on New Year's Day of that year, Fanny Taylor, a white woman in the nearby predominantly white town of Sumner, ran out of her house screaming, bruised and battered, claiming that a black man had assaulted her-- in actual fact, the beating had been at the hands of her white lover, and Fanny had lied so that her husband would not find out about her adultery. Fanny's accusations, news of an escaped black convict from a local chain gang, and the locals' long-simmering resentment of the more prosperous Rosewood were catalyst enough for the whites to form a posse. Led by the county Sheriff, the whites marched three miles to the town of Rosewood in search of their convict.
By the end of the week, between 70 and 250 blacks (depending on the account) in the immediate area had been killed and the town of Rosewood had been completely burned to the ground. After a lackluster grand jury investigation that resulted in no indictments, the Rosewood massacre was quickly forgotten, with the remains of the once-prosperous town hidden by underbrush. It wasn't until 1982 that the terrible legacy of the massacre was revealed, when investigative reporter Gary Moore spoke to some of the survivors, and wrote a story in the St. Petersburg Times. This was later followed by a new report on CBS, and a documentary on the Discovery Channel. It then took another twelve years and intensive legal wrangling for a restitution claim for the survivors to make its way through the justice system. But finally, on May 4th 1994, the Florida legislature voted to officially recognize the Rosewood massacre and pay a $2 million reparation to the survivors and their families.
"As long as criminal assaults on innocent women continue, lynch law will prevail"
- editorial in the Gainesville Daily Sun (1923)
"Rosewood" is director John Singleton's powerful portrayal of the events that transpired at Rosewood that fateful week, laying bare an ugly chapter of Twentieth Century American history. The film begins with the fictional 'hero' of the story, Mann (Ving Rhames of "Pulp Fiction"), a decorated black World War I veteran, who rides into town with some money in his pocket, in search of a piece of land to settle down on. He spies five acres of land for sale, and meets another man interested in the same piece of land, John Wright (Jon Voight, last seen in "The Rainmaker"). Wright is the only white man in Rosewood, and he owns the town's general store. Mann is also befriended by the family of Sylvester Carrier (Don Cheadle of "Devil in a Blue Dress"), who encourages him to put down roots in Rosewood. Fortunately, Mann doesn't require convincing since he is already smitten by Sylvester's daughter, Scrappie (Elise Neal).
Meanwhile, in the nearby town of Sumner, Sheriff Walker(Michael Rooker) is on the look-out for an escaped black convict. Knowing all to well what his neighbors are capable of, he instructs the townsfolk to bring the convict to him alive, before anything is 'doing anything to him'. However, tensions run high when Fanny Taylor (Catherine Kellner) runs out of her house screaming that she has just been beaten (but not raped she carefully adds) by a black man. Her domestic, Sara Carrier (Ester Rolle of the old TV series "Good Times") saw the actual man who beat her-- Fanny's white lover (Robert Patrick, last seen in "Cop Land"), but says nothing out of fear of reprisals. Sheriff Walker, aware of Fanny's reputation, gives her an opportunity to recant her story, but she presses on, and soon the entire town is up in arms to find and punish the non-existent attacker. An armed posse gathers, and they are led by bloodhounds who follow the scent of Fanny's lover to Rosewood. This swarm in search of a scapegoat, despite the ignored pleas by Sheriff Walker for restraint, begin assaulting the residents of Rosewood, who they believe are conspiring to hide the escaped convict. As the hatred of the mob escalates into a frenzied peak, Sheriff Walker finds himself unable to convince the blacks to leave the town and harness the rage of the white mob, Mann must decide whether to stay and defend the helpless residents or flee to safety, John Wright must decide between standing on the sidelines or using his home as a safe haven, and Sylvester must face the armed white men outside his front yard.
The performances in this ensemble piece are above average, with a few outstanding ones. Rhames, who has mainly been in supporting character roles in his previous films, comes off surprisingly strong as the silent and reserved pillar of strength for the residents of Rosewood. Voight is superlative as a man who find himself torn between his compassion for his neighbors and the selfish fear for his own safety. And Rooker is particularly effective as the well-intentioned Sheriff that thinks he can keep the mob under control, only to be swept away by their strong collective will.
Singleton has come a long way since his debut feature "Boyz 'n the Hood". "Rosewood" is his first period piece, and he is able to breathe life into the story, effectively conveying the physical and emotional devastation brought on by a lie, as well as the potential for great compassion and courage in times of turmoil. And despite some of the urban action movie trappings that Singleton throws in (during a chase through some woods, Mann pulls out two guns and turns the tables on his pursuers Hong Kong-style), it is a heart-rending story that has something important to say without being overly pedagogical. Above all, this film resonates with intensity in its examination of racial hatred, accentuated by many powerful images: the people of Sumner picnicking and playing while the houses of Rosewood burn in the background, a white man teaching his son how to tie a hangman's noose, and dozens of bodies being dumped like trash into a mass grave.
It is perhaps due to this graphic intensity that "Rosewood" disappeared quickly during its theatrical run. It is easy to understand why audiences, black or white, would shy away from this unflinching historical drama. For blacks, it is a reminder of an age when they were relatively powerless against the brutality of racism, and for whites, it is an ambivalent memento to their shameful past. But nonetheless, this film tells an important story and tells it very well.
"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."
- director John Singleton