The Tragedy of 'Rosewood' Review: John Singleton's run at telling this piece of history falls short. Maybe he'll try again, say, in another 20 years.

February 21, 1997|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,SUN FILM CRITIC

Undoubtedly a great tragedy occurred over the first four days of January 1923 in the small town of Rosewood, Fla. An American Lidice, the prosperous little village on the Gulf Coast xTC was wiped out by the combined forces of ignorance, cruelty, class envy and pure-D racism. Depending on sources, somewhere between six and 150 African-Americans died over those days.

And undoubtedly a great movie could have been made of this still unhealed scab on the body politic. But "Rosewood," John Singleton's film of these events, isn't it. Passionate, powerful, even gripping, the movie finally gives up to base commercial impulses and falls back on the oldest and cheapest of strokes. It's a fundamentally immature, undisciplined work.

Somehow the tragedy has been turned into a backdrop to an Italian western, complete to a shaven-headed man with no name riding into town wearing a couple of .45s under his coat, ready to mow down crackers and cry vengeance.

It didn't have to be so. Singleton and his screenwriter, Gregory Poirier, are far from exploiters, merely pushing the other side of the argument that white people pushed about black people for so long. In fact, the best thing about "Rosewood" is its understanding of the complexity of motives that underlie the atrocity and its willingness to ascribe dignity and courage equally across the color line. But when Ving Rhames pulls out his .45s and starts blazing away, all that disappears, and we're playing cowboys in a graveyard.

Singleton probably over-romanticizes Rosewood. In his evocation, it's something of an African-American Eden, much like MGM's sentimentalized small towns of Andy Hardy's boyhood. It has broad streets and stately Victorian homes full of art and antiques. In keeping with the crudity of the dichotomy, the white village down the road, Sumner, is a rude Dogpatch full of 'baccy-spittin', butt-scratchin' hillbillies and their slatternly womenfolk, who'll apparently do the dang dirty dog with just about anybody. (The portrayal of whites as sexually degenerate monkeys -- clearly turning a stereotype against itself -- is pretty funny, come to think of it.)

Anyhow, trouble comes to roost in this neck of the scrub pines when a white adulteress, beaten by her lover and needing an explanation for her shiner, claims that she was assaulted by a black man, a chain gang escapee. That lets the demon out of the bottle -- the demon being the fury of the crackers that people of another race are doing so much better than they.

Singleton lets us see how this motive plays hob with mob psychology. A sheriff, unable to control the rising fury, goes along, even though he can see through the woman's lie; her husband must partake out of denial; a bearded beerbelly sees it as a chance to instruct his own son in the necessities of racial superiority. In fact, everybody has his own creepy little motive, his own secret, crippling sense of inadequacy that causes him to give himself up to the momentum of the evil.

Meanwhile, in Rosewood, Rhames has ridden into town out of the nearby Sergio Leone movie, a thoroughly preposterous figure in a huge duster and hat, a World War I veteran wearing his .45 autos in a complicated double shoulder rig. He's welcomed like a long-lost brother, given shelter and soon begins to think about settling down. But he's also romancing a 17-year-old girl, a stroke that seemed to me to be completely unnecessary.

Rhames is a great actor and has a particularly powerful presence. But this character was strictly unnecessary because it detracts from the dignity of the town's survivors and from the tragic reality of history and turns it into cheap wish-fulfillment.

Two other figures are far more compelling. One is Don Cheadle as the town's music teacher, a proud, intelligent man who well understands the meaning of the approaching storm but will not move from his land. Another -- possibly this demonstrates the movie's ecumenical spirit better than anything -- is Jon Voight, who owns the town's general store and who deals with black customers on a daily basis.

What's odd about this character is the way in which he conforms to the hated stereotype of the typical liberal film like "Biko," in which black pain is seen purely as a rite of passage for a concerned white who survives as a more chastened individual. That's exactly what happens to Voight's Johnny Wright, who is initially reluctant to become involved but whose horror at the atrocity enables him to find the considerable courage to become actively involved in a rescue mission. And Voight has exactly the right blend of reluctance and humanity to make the character real: His face broadcasts his queasy unease.

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