A tale of two towns
For his fourth feature, Boyz N the Hood director John Singleton has chosen to re-create the 1923 Rosewood massacre, during which the white population of Sumner, Florida, went on a three-day rampage and destroyed the neighboring black town of Rosewood, killing many of its inhabitants. Perhaps reimagine is a better word than re-create, since the historical record is so sketchy: Little about the story has ever escaped that rural region of Florida, and both fear and guilt stopped the participants from revisiting the event on the record.
In 1982, reporter Gary Moore came across the story and interviewed the few remaining survivors, who were all children when the massacre took place. The incident eventually made it to 60 Minutes and then the Florida state legislature, which voted to pay reparations to survivors and descendants of the victims.
As a result, Singleton has had to invent many of the main characters for Rosewood: His version of the story centers on an imaginary drifter (Ving Rhames) who wanders into town. Mann--no first name given--is a World War I vet, still unsettled from the violence he has encountered on the battlefields of Europe. Mann stops in Rosewood to get his horse shod. He is immediately attracted to Scrappie Carrier (Elise Neal), a schoolteacher whose family is, by local standards, reasonably well-to-do.
Unfortunately, Mann couldn't have picked a worse time to show up.
Over in Sumner, town "tramp" Fanny Taylor (Catherine Kellner) has been beaten up by one of her transient lovers (Robert Patrick). In order to explain her injuries to her husband (Loren Dean) without revealing her adultery, she claims to have been attacked by an unknown black man. Sheriff Walker (Michael Rooker) has his doubts, but since a black has recently escaped from a nearby chain gang, he assumes that's the man.
Indeed, in one of the story's weirder subplots, the white man responsible for the beating goes to Rosewood, where he's abetted in escaping by a couple of black men who help him because they're all Masons! When the vengeful people of Sumner send out the dogs, they trace the man's scent to Rosewood, whose citizens are then assumed to be hiding the guilty black escapee. And despite ample evidence that Mann is someone else entirely, the fact that he is a stranger makes him suspect. Led by arch-racist Duke Purdy (Bruce McGill) and unstopped by the ineffectual sheriff--who, as Sumnerites go, is a liberal--the mob hunts, tortures, hangs, and burns Rosewood blacks, eventually torching every house in town except the only one belonging to a white man, shopkeeper John Wright (Jon Voight).
Singleton wisely takes his time at the beginning, giving us experience of life in Rosewood and Sumner the day before the violence starts. His portrait of two neighboring, segregated towns and their interlocking relationships is crucial to explaining the hatred and desperation that consume the film's second half. The exposition is not always 100 percent clear--we wouldn't really know that Rosewood's blacks are better off financially than Sumner's whites if it weren't explicitly explained in the dialogue--but we are given enough background to understand most of the social and economic forces that feed the situation.
If the film starts to drag a bit in its middle third--the running time is more than two hours and 20 minutes--it easily compensates during the final act, as Mann and others (not all of them black) put their lives on the line to help transport a group of women and children out of the danger zone. (Another exposition problem arises at this point: Outside of the Carrier family and a few others, the rest of Rosewood's residents appear to have vanished without explanation. Only later does Singleton suggest what became of them.)
The final 45 minutes is a nail-biting hunt-and-chase sequence, very "Hollywood" in the best sense of the word, with gunfights and horses and locomotives. It's exhilarating without ever letting up on the more introspective elements that run throughout the film. While the blacks are certainly the focus of the story, Singleton is at least equally interested in the moral conflicts of the whites, particularly those who are arguably "good" outside of their varying degrees of racism. Voight and Rooker are especially compelling, as their characters are forced to confront the hideous and inevitable results of their own passive complicity in the slaughter.
But Rhames is the one who really shines here. He has left an indelible impression in a series of increasingly important roles, from Jacob's Ladder to Dave to Pulp Fiction. He even managed to provide a few bright moments in the wretched Dangerous Ground--no mean feat. Here he gives Mann a solid, but far from flawless, strength of character that gives the otherwise broad-canvas story some needed focus.
Singleton may spend the rest of his career chasing the kind of critical and commercial success he won at an early age with Boyz N the Hood. But even if Rosewood fails to meet that standard, it is a film that reaffirms that depth of his talents.
Ving Rhames, Jon Voight, Esther Rolle, Elise Neal, Don Cheadle, Michael Rooker, Bruce McGill, Catherine Kellner, Badja Djola, Jaimz Voolvett, Loren Dean. Written by Gregory Poirier. Directed by John Singleton. Now playing.
Get the Weekly Newsletter
Our weekly feature stories, movie reviews, calendar picks and more - minus the newsprint and sent directly to your inbox.