Contents of Issue#2 [Welcome] [Features] [In Focus] [Reviews] [Info]
Rosewood Fuses the Horror of Lynchings with Action Movie Heroics
movie review by Gary Johnson

Go to:
The official Web site for Rosewood

[rating: 3 of 4 stars]
In January of 1923, a group of white men from the poor town of Sumner, Florida gathered in force and stormed into the neighboring black town of Rosewood. Wielding torches and lynches, they burned Rosewood to the ground and hung many of its citizens from tree branches.

A small town is burned in John Singleton's new drama, Rosewood

(©1997 Warner Bros. All rights reserved.)

Years later, few signs remained that Rosewood ever existed; however, in 1983 the CBS-TV news program 60 Minutes went searching for Rosewood and brought the town's story to a shocked American audience. After a decade of legal action, the state offered reparations to the survivors. When CBS once again turned to Rosewood to cover the legislative aftermath in 1994, movie producer Jon Peters took note and quickly went to work. And now, moviegoers across the country can see and begin to comprehend what took place in Rosewood over 70 years ago.

The resulting movie, simply titled Rosewood, gives us a contrasting picture of two small towns. One town, largely black, was the home of 150 to 300 people who lived in small homes with glass-paned windows , vegetable gardens, and electricity. The other town, largely white, was a company town, built in a rigid grid pattern, where people owned nothing, not their land or even their furniture.

Ving Rhames attempts to lead the kids to safety in Rosewood

(©1997 Warner Bros. All rights reserved.)

This contrast in the two towns plays an important role, for the white men in Sumner look at Rosewood with envious eyes. They see pianos and livestock, things they don't own themselves, and anger builds. When a married white woman, a well-known adulteress, gets beaten by one of her lovers, she says a black man beat her. And thus the lynching party begins to grow. They aren't planning to avenge her honor. They couldn't care less about her honor. They simply use her bruises as an excuse to kill people and destroy property.

Ving Rhames becomes an action hero in Rosewood

(©1997 Warner Bros. All rights reserved.)

Jon Voight plays a shop owner in Rosewood named John Wright. He has been making money off of the Rosewood citizens for several years and hopes to one day take his family and his savings and high-tail it for the big city. He isn't particularly interested in helping out the town of Rosewood, but when the lynching party hits Rosewood, looking for any excuse to start stringing up black men and women, Wright has to rethink his commitment to the community. Meanwhile a black stranger, Mr. Mann (Ving Rhames, who played Marcellus Wallace in Pulp Fiction), rides into town, hoping to settle down, buy some land and take a wife. But when the violence breaks out, he lies low and avoids becoming involved. "I just came from one war," he says (a veteran of WWI). "Ain't looking for another." But as the killings mount, he also has to rethink his commitment.

Jon Voight helps the children escape in Rosewood

(©1997 Warner Bros. All rights reserved.)

If you're expecting Rosewood to be a small, art house type of movie, well, you'll be in for a shock. Rosewood is anything but a small, introspective movie. Director John Singleton (Boyz N the Hood and Poetic Justice) has fashioned the story as part small, personal drama and part big action movie. The filmmakers seem to have decided that a simple movie about the burnings and killings wouldn't be enough. That type of movie might play the art houses but it wouldn't reach a large audience. So instead, the filmmakers have created a movie filled with thrilling chases and encounters, that even manages to give us a hero cut in the Sylvester Stallone mold. Instead of seeing Rosewood as a simple venue for showing the horrific results of a lynching party gone crazy, where the black men and women become victims, producer Peters and director Singleton have seen the opportunity to create an uplifting story of people fighting back against the oppressors. As a result, you'll probably find fellow audience members cheering and applauding as the black hero (Ving Rhames) swings into action to save the children.

But does such an approach sacrifice integrity for simple thrills? I think the answer is yes, and whether you'll like Rosewood may depend on just how willing you are to go along with the filmmakers' desire to make sure you can enjoy watching this movie instead of simply being horrified at the atrocities. It's definitely an uneasy mixture and the approach threatens to undermine the production, softening the horror of the murders by too quickly shifting to scenes with Mr. Mann, muscles bulging like Rambo, taking on the lynching party, pistols in each hand, like a character out of a John Woo movie. In addition, the film too easily presents Rosewood as good and Sumner as bad without many of the complexities and ambiguities that you'll find in real life.

But whatever the case, Rosewood is a impressive production. Production designer Paul Sylbert gives us a setting that's filled with wonderful details that make the world of Rosewood and Sumner spring to life again. The real Rosewood may be long gone. But the filmmakers have built a new town from the ground up.

And the movie is filled with some impressive performances, such as Michael Rooker as the Sumner Sheriff. He's impotent to stop the lynching party. In fact, he rides along with it wherever it goes. Don Cheadle (who won a Best Supporting Actor award from the National Society of Film Critics for his work in Devil With a Blue Dress) creates a dignified, proud family man who demands respect and refuses to accept less. Ving Rhames emerges as a convincing action hero. We won't have to wait long to see him in another action role; Con Air, co-starring Nicholas Cage, is due in theaters soon. And Jon Voight delivers one of his best performances since his Academy Award-winning role in Coming Home. He gives us a character who clearly wrestles with his own desire to not become involved with the race war.

The movie's greatest accomplishment, however, comes from its convincing depiction of how the lynching party quickly gets out of control. Singleton keeps the emphasis on individual reactions, showing us the people, the faces, behind the events. "I'm supposed to uphold the law!" the sheriff shouts as the lynching party hangs a black man. No one listens. However, when the filmmakers reach for bigger statements, they often stumble. A father teaches his boy how to tie a noose and pushes him to shoot guns, but the movie then expects the boy to serve as a surrogate voice for the audience and reject his father, saying "You ain't no man." Or it gives us some silly suspense aboard a train that sounds suspiciously like Scottie's "But-she-can't-take-it-anymore, Captain" dialogue from Star Trek

As a result, Rosewood strives for great statements and only ends up being a good action movie instead.

Warner Bros. Presents
A Peters Entertainment Production
In Association with New Deal Productions


John WrightJon Voight
Ving RhamesVing Rhames
Sylvester CarrierDon Cheadle
DukeBruce McGill
James TaylorLoren Dean
Sarah CarrierEsther Rolle
ScrappieElise Neal
Fannie TaylorCatherine Kellner
Sheriff WalkerMichael Rooker
Directed byJohn Singleton
Produced byJon Peters
Screenplay byGregory Poirier
Director of PhotographyJohnny E. Jensen
Production DesignerPaul Sylbert
ComposerJohn Williams
ChoreographyGraciela Daniele
Costume DesignerRuth Carter
EditorBruce Cannon
Co-executive producersPenelope L. Foster
Executive producersTracy Barone
Top Welcome Features In Focus Reviews Info