One of the least-considered aspects of massacres is that you might not hear about them, if for only the obvious fact that the victims aren’t around to tell their story.
So it is with the Rosewood massacre of 1923, the murderous burning of a prosperous black community in rural Florida by rampaging whites under the impression that one of their women had been raped by a black. Not recounted until a reporter brought it to the attention of CBS’ “60 Minutes” in 1982, “Rosewood” is a powerful and heartbreaking dramatization of that awful saga. Eloquently directed by John Singleton, this film is a stirring and sobering human tale, one that will surely touch the hearts of all.
Head-and-shoulders above the usual, well-meaning, self-congratulatory folderol that makes it to the screen about racial injustice, “Rosewood” is a graceful evocation of a dignified community and a sobering insight into the madness of mob psychology. Gregory Poirier’s insightful screenplay is a sobering reminder of what such learned social historians as Gustave LeBon have written about mob psychology, that the mob is an “idiot,” galvanized by the lowest common denominator.
In this scary scenario, we’re led into an easy acquaintanceship with the film’s chief character, namely the homey burg of Rosewood, a quiet black town of farmers and craftsmen - churchgoing folk. Contiguous with Rosewood is Sumner, a less cohesive aggregation of whites and, as a group, decidedly less prosperous than their Rosewood brethren.
In style and personality, Poirier’s story has the welcoming grace of a friendly host as we’re initially led into an easy acquaintanceship with Rosewood, getting to know its people, its rhythms, its personality. At that same time, we catch snatches of things to come: In essence, we’re clued to the pervasive racism of the day, not only from the trashier types but, most hauntingly, from the more enlightened whites of the area. Despite the surface calm, we see the festering combustible nature of the situation and, quite rightly, fear that it will take only one spark to set things off.
It’s the deliberate, unforced patience of Singleton that gives “Rosewood” its heartbreaking power. His restraint in letting the story unfold, without overpunctuating or belaboring its narrative, allows the film to reach its full organic power.
Johnny E. Jensen’s incandescent cinematography, John Williams’ tender music and Bruce Cannon’s supple edits kindle “Rosewood” to both its most warm and most incendiary moments.
Jon Voight’s performance as a storekeeper who struggles to do the right thing is perhaps his best work since “Midnight Cowboy.” As a mysterious soldier, Ving Rhames is mesmeric as a man of dignity and honor, while Don Cheadle also stands out as a man who refuses to shuffle. It’s Sarah Carrier though, as Rosewood’s elderly matriarch, who absolutely melts your heart with her staunch decency.
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: “Rosewood” Location: Newport, Showboat Credits: Directed by John Singleton, starring Jon Voight, Ving Rhames, Don Cheadle, Bruce McGill, Loren Dean, Esther Rolle, Elise Neal, Catherine Kellner, Michael Rooker Running time: 2:20 Rating: R