'Rosewood' Remembers Race War

Real-life events of a Florida town in 1923 have an urgent message for audiences today

Filmmakers still love fantastic yarns like "Dante's Peak" and "Scream." But stories based on reality are also in fashion, from the coming Mafia thriller "Donnie Brasco" to celebrity-centered films like "Shine" and "The People vs. Larry Flynt."

Reality takes second place to dramatization in such movies, of course, and savvy audiences don't expect them to provide full-fledged historical truth. But in the more responsible examples, enough real-life material glimmers through the Hollywood touches to give us a glimpse of actual events.

This certainly happens in "Rosewood," which takes its title from the name of a Florida town destroyed in a race war about 75 years ago. Directed by John Singleton, the picture contains a number of melodramatic flourishes that cut into its credibility and ironically weaken its impact. Yet it retains more than enough believable details and credible characterizations to give it the ring of tragic truth.

Judging from the movie's evidence, the most important single fact about Rosewood appears to have been the economic and cultural success achieved by its poor but honorable African-American citizens. They built their town into a thriving community - complete with proud homeowners, a well-attended church, even a music teacher for the local kids - that's more impressive than anything the white folks in the nearby village of Sumner can boast of.

It's risky for black people to outshine their white neighbors in the Deep South of 1923, and some of Sumner's rednecks take petty revenge by exploiting and abusing African-Americans, who are prevented by law and custom from defending themselves. Things reach a boiling point when a promiscuous white woman gets horribly beaten by a sadistic white lover, and she tries to cover the facts by claiming she was assaulted by a black man on the run from a chain gang.

The good ol' boys of Sumner grab their dogs, load their rifles, and crank up their hatreds for a furious manhunt in the nearby woods and swamps, which quickly escalates to an all-out attack on the black community. Their shotgun shells fly as wildly as their emotions, taking a toll in human lives that grows more horrifying by the hour. Aside from the outcries of the besieged blacks, the only voices of reason are a handful of whites - a sheriff trying to enforce the law, a shopkeeper with many black customers, his deeply religious wife - whose commitment to the black victims can't be trusted to extend very far.

It's astonishing to think that such an event could happen. But happen it did, just a few decades ago, and the film's final credits tell of survivors still remembering the disaster (see story below). The actuality and urgency of the story call into question the filmmakers' strategy of using melodramatic formulas to heighten its visceral appeal.

It is possible, for example, that during the real incident a new Rosewood resident named Mann staved off attacks on his life and aided his fellow blacks by leading women and children to safety through the wilderness. But it is unlikely that he fended off a berserk mob with two blazing pistols, made a strenuous escape after literally being lynched, and received help in his exploits from a horse that seems smarter than many of the human characters.

This aside, "Rosewood" marks an impressive comeback for director Singleton, who followed his electrifying debut in "Boyz N the Hood" with letdowns in the pretentious "Poetic Justice" and the uneven "Higher Learning."

Ving Rhames, an actor so gifted that even the wretched "Striptease" gained greatly from his presence, gives the heroic Mann as much humanity and believability as the screenplay allows. Jon Voight, one of Hollywood's more thoughtful and creative denizens, is excellent as the white merchant with divided loyalties.

Standouts in the supporting cast include Esther Rolle as a dignified Rosewood matron, Elise Neal as a schoolteacher caught in the cross-fire, and Michael Rooker as the hard-pressed sheriff.

Bruce McGill is also particularly real (and frightening) as a white man who sees the chaotic episode as a chance to teach his little boy what "manhood" means, and this character brings out an unstated but important subtext in the movie. Every one of the rampaging killers in "Rosewood" is a male - a reminder that gender attitudes as well as racial bigotry have played strong roles in causing such American tragedies, and that more attention to enlightened conceptions of manhood could have a healing influence on today's society.

*'Rosewood' has an R rating; it contains a great deal of violence, some of it extremely horrifying, as well as foul language and brief but explicit sex.

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