Somewhere in the dim reaches of the collected movies in existence are some extremely low budget films that contain yours truly. During my days as a Civil War reenactor, which was high school up through to my entrance into graduate school, a small-time moviemaker came around our events to shoot his productions. When you are at this level, it helps to have big happenings going on, and if you receive permission to shoot them, they provide a convenient and free backdrop. In the business, they call this production value, and one of the reasons the big studios spend so much money on their movies is because they have the money to create their own scenery and sets without having to rely on the vagaries of real life. I was part of that production value, and in one of these there is a close-up of my lifeless (and much younger) face. Do not bother asking me the name of this film, or who it was that made it. I remember neither. Yet, I would recognize its star instantly, and have seen him in other big-budgets works, like today’s film, Rosewood (1997).
The introduction to this review of Rosewood would not give you much of a clue as to the film’s content, other than perhaps being history related. It is 1923, and Mann (Ving Rhames) has come to Rosewood, Florida, searching for land to purchase. The appearance of an African American in the South with this kind of money at this point in history raises suspicion, but this is part of the reason he travels to the virtually all black Rosewood. Part of why he is a able to make the land deal that he eventually does is because he is a World War I veteran, though we know little else about him. A family we do know in Rosewood are the Carriers. It is to them that Mann gravitates soon after his arrival, falling in love Beulah “Scrappie” Carrier (Elise Neal). Her father is the successful Sylvester Carrier (Don Cheadle), and at first he is not entirely keen on the relationship. They are about to have bigger problems. The Carrier family matriarch, affectionately known as Aunt Sarah (Esther Rolle), works as a nanny for a white couple in a neighboring town. While the husband, James Taylor (Loren Dean), of said wife, Fanny (Catherine Kellner), is at work, Fanny has taken a lover (Robert Patrick). A disagreement between the two leads to her being beaten. Following the attack, she takes to the streets to cry wolf, and claims that it had been a black man who had laid his hands on her. It snowballs into a full-throated cry for vengeance, fueled by rumors of an escaped convict named Jesse Hunter, who is also reported to have been black. Aunt Sarah reports the news in Rosewood, and immediately there is concern as to what the neighboring whites are going to do. As the newest person in town, Mann believes that the blame will land on him, and offers to leave, though the residents tell him to stay. He is encouraged in his plan by one of the few whites in town, the grocer John Wright (Jon Voight), himself a Navy veteran of the Spanish American War. It is at night that the lynch mob, sprinkled with those idiots in white robes known as the Klan, gets to Rosewood (and the star I mentioned in the first paragraph is an extra here). Their first move is to go to the Carrier home, believing the most well-off family must be the one hiding the fugitive. Aunt Sarah goes out to the crowd and attempts to reason with them, but things take the final turn towards violence when, seconds after naming Fanny’s attacker as white, she is shot and killed. Sylvester, who had been busy sending his family out of town and arming himself, sees his mother fall and begins returning fire. This sends the mob into a craze, and they begin destroying every building, and murdering every African American they can find. Sylvester escapes by hiding under the body of his mother. When they come to John’s house, who is hiding some of his neighbors, the revelers demand that they give up James Carrier (Paul Banjamin), Aunt Sarah’s husband, believing he has information about Jesse Hunter. His ignorance leads to his execution, not that it would have made much of a difference whether or not he could give them what they wanted. James’ death convinces John to do what he can to help the rest, and he is instrumental in arranging for a train to get the survivors out of town. Meanwhile, Mann had decided to return to Rosewood to see what he could do to assist, and arrives in the middle of the massacre. At one point he is captured, and accused of being Jesse Hunter, though he manages to escape being lynched. From there, he is able to make to the train, along with Sylvester, though it, too, is attacked as it begins to move down the track. Once they are out of danger, Mann and Sylvester agree to go back to look for more survivors. One of the last things we see is James returning after the massacre, distraught, and getting angry with Fanny because their efforts turned up nothing like what she described. It is part of his realization that she has been lying for some time.
My description of the plot of Rosewood paints a rosier picture of John’s character. Neither did much of what you see here actually happen in terms of the main characters. There was, indeed, a massacre at Rosewood in 1923, which resulted in it being virtually erased from the map. Like the reenactments that our filmmaker in the introduction used, the tragedy is a backdrop for director John Singleton to tell a dramatization using composite or entirely made-up characters. John Wright is one of those characters, though the actual historical details are not what is important. When we are first introduced to him, he is carrying on in the back room of his store with Sylvester’s cousin, Jewel (Akosua Busia), even though he is married to someone else. There is symbolism here for what he is doing to the residents of Rosewood here, but the less said about that the better. As the violence erupts, he helps, but he says it is because he wants to protect his customers. It is after seeing the barbarity of other whites that he decides to commit more fully to aiding his neighbors. His character and his actions bring up a philosophical question with a Christian connection. God asks of us right action at all times, though, obviously, at times we fall. It is interesting, still, to examine what it is that convinces people to follow the straight and narrow path, a Biblical reference, by the way. God uses all situations, bad and good, to lead us closer to Him. Saints, when we have records of their thoughts, often talked about tragedy as an opportunity for His grace to flow, in this case the grace that causes the man who is about to die fall to his knees and beseeching God. This does not exactly happen in the movie, particularly not for John, but he is shaken by what he witnesses. There is grace in that, too.
As you can probably guess from this review, Rosewood is a tough movie to watch. It is violent, and there is the inappropriate scene when we first see John. Its R rating is well deserved. Recommending films with this designation is always tricky. It is an important piece because it brings to light a largely forgotten, awful moment in American History. If this is something you would rather avoid, I do not blame you.