Rosewood

Review

by Ed Guerrero

Cineaste v23, n1 (Wntr, 1997):45 (3 pages).



COPYRIGHT Cineaste Publishers Inc. 1997. Used in the UCB Media Resources Web site with permission.

John Singleton's Rosewood grapples with a powerful, daunting contradiction. Put simply, how does one make a slick, Hollywood action- adventure-entertainment flick, with big box-office expectations, about one of history's ultimate nightmares: genocidal racism? Singleton is not alone in attempting to negotiate this contradiction, since other mainstream filmmakers have attempted to do so before. Posed as question, this contradiction reverberates with a number of issues, raised most recently by the work of Steven Spielberg in Schindler's List (1993), Mario and Melvin Van Peebles in Panther (1995), Costa-Gavras in Betrayed (1988), and even Kevin Costner in Dances with Wolves (1990).

Singleton answers the challenge of his material by casting this true and horrific tale in the mold of the Hollywood revisionist Western, with its lone, gunslinging hero "aimin' to settle down" in a prosperous little town in need of his talents and abilities. This Western is revisionist because the hero is black; the cultural focus is on African America; the scene is the South in the 1920s; and the issue is lynching and mass murder.

Rosewood is based on the terrible, historically-repressed events that took place in the small, thriving black town of that name, located on the edge of the Florida cypress swamps. Fueled by economic competition and jealousy, and finally ignited by an adulterous white woman's charge of abuse against a black man - the mythical and historically indispensable black other - a legally-sanctioned lynch mob from the nearby white town of Sumner descended on Rosewood and burned it to the ground. In the process, the mob managed to kill 'several people' (the body count was probably much higher than officially reported) and managed to drive several hundred of the town's residents into hiding in the surrounding swamps.

Yet the repressed does return, and the story was featured in 1983 on CBS-TV's 60 Minutes, indebted to the long memories of twenty Rosewood survivors and descendants, including Arnett Doctor, and the investigative reporting of Gary Moore of the St. Petersburg Times. After another eleven years of political haggling and hearings, the Florida State Legislature, in a first-of-its-kind gesture, voted monetary reparations for Rosewood's victims.

Of course, it's a long way from historical actuality to the big Hollywood screen, with its ultimate imperative that everybody's story be measured by its box-office potential - that is, be reduced to its commodity status. Thus, the nagging contradiction between commercial form and historical content pops up almost immediately in a self-conscious moment in Rosewood's opening scene when World War I vet Mann (Ving Rhames), flush with his discharge money and packing a couple of .45 automatics, rides into town. In the age of the automobile, a young boy asks the obvious question: Why is he riding a horse?

But the tension between content and form is present in other more significant and obvious ways. Hollywood always depicts the collective sufferings and struggles of oppressed peoples through the tale of the hyperbolic, heroic individual. Certainly, Spielberg's viewing the Holocaust this way in Schindler's List, or Spike Lee's masking his celebrity persona as Shorty, konked and Zoot Suiting his way through Malcolm X, or the Van Peebles trying to understand the political rise of the Black Panther Party through nostalgic eyes in Panther, are but the most recent variations on this gambit.

Singleton's prime attribute and contribution to black filmmaking has much to do with his ability to survive in the 'movie business' as a mainstream director moving from project to project. In this regard, one hopes that, by example and networking, he will help hold that space open for other emerging black directors of the same persuasion. From Singleton, then, one has come to expect industry convention rather than experimentation and subversion of form, no matter how socially insurgent the content of his films.

Thus, in dutiful big-screen manner, the story unfolds with Mann looking at a piece of property he wishes to buy, connecting closely with Rosewood's leading family, the Carriers - Sylvester (Don Cheadle) and Aunt Sarah (Esther Rolle) - and taking a liking to their comely, school-teacher daughter, Scrappie (Elise Neal). Added to this stock mix of plot and characters are a number of ambivalent whites, including the sexploitative storekeeper, John Wright (Jon Voight), who becomes reluctantly instrumental in saving many of the citizens of Rosewood, and Sheriff Walker (Michael Rooker), who tries to control the drunken lynch mob from Sumner he has deputized. Of course, this Hollywood adaptation would not be complete without the displacement-by-class of all evil onto the poorest of Southern whites. These folks are most notably represented by a bo' hog- hunting, whisky-drinking, murderous, racist lunatic named Duke (Bruce McGill) and a 'trashy' young white woman named Fannie Taylor (Catherine Kellner), who initially yells "nigger" and sets things off.

What makes Rosewood an interesting and even powerful film, however, resides not in its form or formula, but in the way its visual spectacle and argument manage to break through the smothering, controlling embrace of Hollywood liberalism. In spite of itself, Rosewood manages to shake up the expectations of even the most jaded mall-multiplex cineaste. Singleton's rendering of the Twenties town of Rosewood and its culture evokes notions of a stable, homogenous, unified, and self-sufficient black community between the world wars, while simultaneously depicting the climate of racism and black/white power relations that made such a black world necessary and, ironically, possible.

With all the fine detail of a mainstream-cinema period piece, in the film's most seductive scenes the protagonist Mann breaks bread with the Carrier family and the next night attends a community New Years' Eve dance. In these fleeting moments - in the social world of black hospitality, dance, and celebration - Rosewood transcends formula. The costumes, the moves on the dance floor, even the brothers discreetly sipping from a jug and ruminating on the fringe of the gathering, nostalgically call up a world receded from our generational memory. But Singleton has a thing for parties, and one can contrast this Twenties community and social gathering with the other communities and parties across the great political divide of the civil rights movement - the Nineties 'hood 'Bar-B-Q' in Boyz N the Hood or the picnic in Poetic Justice. The paradigm has shifted and the problems have grown, but the beat goes on.

Rosewood's real power, however, dwells in the way the film, with its quite graphic scenes of racist, genocidal violence, "dialectically shocks" us, as Frederic Jameson would say, into new realizations about ourselves and our communal relations. As a national audience, both cinematic and televisual, we have become quite addicted and inured to the graphic verisimilitude of action-adventure violence as entertainment. What gives us that extra jolt of unease in Rosewood, however, is the subtle current of repressed history running through the film, no matter how commercially masked, that resonates with the Holocaust, the evils of ethnic cleansing in the former Yugoslavia, or the genocide/countergenocide of the Hutu/Tutsi disaster in Rwanda. That is to say, the film forces us to recognize all of that seething fear and hatred reserved for the other in the planetary political unconscious, waiting to explode in our collective faces at the next economic downturn, the next instance of racial scapegoating, or the next spell of 'war fever' and communal suicide.

At the height of the film's action, the disturbing sight of black men and women hanging from trees and telephone poles, highlighted by the flames of their burning community, seamlessly merges with those old Life, Jet, and archival photographs of real lynchings in America's historical gallery of horrors. Consequently, Rosewood's spectacle of violence is decidedly not escapist entertainment in that mainstream-cinema sense. Violence, here, demands a regurgitation of barely hidden collective nightmares and guilty complicities, as well as a painful examination of the national conscience. These are all things we as a national audience don't like to face, even in the darkness and anonymity of our cinemas. These concerns are symbolized in one of the film's closing scenes, when the rabid Duke, proud of his crimes, forces his young son to look at a pile of black bodies awaiting disposal. Here, all of humanity's body counts are evoked, from Auschwitz, to Wounded Knee, to My Lai. Singleton's obvious point - as the child rejects his father's wretched path and runs away from home - is that hope resides in the next generation.

To be certain, Singleton's film is full of messages of the more obvious, liberal, movie-industry variety, including those about some whites being rational, good, and perhaps heroic in evil times, to historic black arguments about self-defense and active struggle against racism. Even though trapped in a Hollywood black/white buddy configuration, Jon Voight and Ving Rhames do a reasonable job of lifting the film's messages above editorial didacticism. Voight's performance as a circumstantial hero - an ambivalent, exploitative white storekeeper in the black community, who finds his conscience in the heat of the massacre - shows his subtle and consummate skill as an actor. Rhames is equally outstanding as the quintessentially laconic, Hollywood tough guy who, in this instance, stakes a clear claim for black manhood and resistance in the face of oppression.

Rhames's Mann makes this point in a scene best described as 'popcorn' violence. While riding on his 'hoss' out of town, Mann is wildly fired upon by several whites who chase him deep into the woods. Finally, Mann turns, stands his ground, and opens up with both his .45s. Cut to the whites hauling ass out of the woods, with the punch line coming when they exclaim that they were ambushed by a gang of "ten to fifteen niggers." The audience explodes with laughter. Singleton's timing and editorial touch, with this classic scene from the archives of the cinematic West, proves just right.

Some of Rosewood's messages, however, are not so entertaining or edifying. These moments find their origins in the film industry's habit of reflexively devaluing those powerless groups not at the center of its discourse or at the top of its representational caste system. Hollywood films, no matter who makes them, continue to be plagued by some very obvious color and gender problems. In the case of Rosewood, one must ask why it is that the darkest black woman in the cast (Akosua Busia as Jewell) literally opens the film with her legs spread wide and squealing in the pain/pleasure of miscegenation, and then, in the film's closure, is symbolically punished by having her murdered corpse gruesomely displayed - face up, eyes open - in a close-up. The existence of a devaluing, color- caste hierarchy - in this instance focused on those whom Alice Walker has referred to as "black black" women - continues to be a disturbing reality in commercial cinema.

Disturbing, as well, is how the liberal 'problem-picture' mechanism of displacement works when ultimately assigning blame and punishment for the genocidal operations of a systematic and collectively racist society. Unquestionably, the adulterous white woman, Fannie Taylor, is initially responsible for the horrific sequence of events that transpires in Rosewood. For certain, she bears the historical burden of articulating the repeatedly deployed, false accusation against black men as rapists and/or criminals. As is well known from the Susan Smith case and more recent spectacles in our televisual media circus, the electronic evocation of the black bogeyman is still big business. Moreover, Singleton does a reasonable job of looking into Fannie's motivations with some psychological subtlety. We see her abject misery and how she garners sympathy from the town's upstanding white women with her false charges.

In Rosewood's final scene, however, we're dealing with Hollywood's 'trickle-down' theory of punishment, with the most powerless individual in the hierarchy taking the rap for the collective. As Rosewood ends, the camera looks down in a long shot on a shack, and we hear the screams and blows of Fannie, as she is brutally beaten by her husband, mixed with the lush, poignant music signifying ideological and narrative resolution. In Singleton's defense, one could argue that a society that could burn and murder an entire black town on impulse would have no trouble thrashing one defenseless, lower-class, white woman (although perhaps this is too subtle an insight for an action-adventure flick, even one with epic, historical pretensions). Hollywood films always argue for what they show in their action, and not necessarily for a director's intentions. So the film's narrative concludes with an act of symbolic punishment, one displacing all blame for the genocide of a racial minority onto yet another out group - women.

Ultimately, however, in spite (or perhaps because) of the tangle of contradictions that characterize Rosewood, John Singleton has made a film that prods the collective, national psyche. Although Rosewood wasn't commercially successful at the box office, the issues it explores will continue to resonate for some time to come, since the film is sure to have a long run in the video store, in the classroom, and within the critical discourse about Black Cinema.


Copyright (C) 1996 by the Library, University of California, Berkeley. All rights reserved.
Document maintained on server: http://www.lib.berkeley.edu/ by
Gary Handman, Head, Media Resources Center.
Last update 5/26/98.

MRC web graphics by Mary Scott, Graphics Office, The Teaching Library