Rating ** Worth seeing

Directed by John Singleton

Written by Gregory Poirier

With Jon Voight, Ving Rhames, Don Cheadle, Bruce McGill, Loren Dean, and Esther Rolle.

In his first movie, Boyz N the Hood (1991), John Singleton places the character Furious Styles (Larry Fishburne) beneath a billboard proclaiming “Seoul to Seoul Realty” in South Central Los Angeles, where Furious delivers a soapbox lecture on gentrification and the marketing of guns and liquor on African-American turf. “We need to keep everything in our neighborhood black,” he urges an impromptu gathering of gangbangers. “Black owned, black everything.”

Such a place once existed, in Rosewood, Florida, the setting of Singleton’s new movie: he reverentially re-creates this once prosperous black town, which whites from a neighboring town burned down in a four-day rampage in 1923. In contrast to the black-on-black violence of Boyz N the Hood, in which a black cop is more verbally abusive to black youth than his white partner, Rosewood returns to an African-American Eden torn from history by white terrorists.

As a director, Singleton shares with Furious a didactic streak. Singleton is no demagogue, but his fast-action style tends to erase the nuances of interracial dynamics: in Rosewood white animosity erupts like the lava that torches another defenseless town in the latest volcano thriller, Dante’s Peak. Seeking a quasi-mythic tale of an African-American rite of passage, Singleton revisits the turf of Boyz N the Hood. In fact, both movies seem indebted for their boys-to-men motifs to Star Wars, a movie Singleton avowedly worships. Reminiscing for the Fox television special hyping the “special edition,” Singleton says of the storybook-style opening scene, “Anybody who knows me knows my life was changed at that moment.”

In the overschematic Rosewood two boys, white Emmett and black Arnett, face two sides of the Force in backwoods Florida and emerge into manhood. The fiery, bloody baptism is triggered by a married white woman who vaguely blames a stranger for the vicious beating she received from her white lover on the morning of January 1, 1923. In Singleton’s Rosewood, Fanny Taylor (Catherine Kellner) sobs theatrically: “He was so big! He was so black!” Poor whites from Sumner, a company town owned by a lumber mill, rally to track down the illusory assailant–and vent their resentment of Rosewood’s economically self-sufficient home owners. During the ensuing ugly carnival–spearheaded by the Klan and spiked with liquor–a white mother peels her little boy’s hands away from his eyes and forces him to watch a white man slice an ear from a lynched black man. Meanwhile, four white hunters pose triumphantly for a photo in front of two charred corpses tied to a tree.

Singleton incarnates the transmission of racism in a big-gutted redneck named Duke (Bruce McGill), whom we first see coaching his son Emmett (Tristan Hook) to “be a man” while hunting boar. Once the hysterical hunt for the imaginary rapist commences, Duke turns up in every mob scene to escalate the cruelty, typically by executing suspects, then speculating about who to torture next.

Duke drags Emmett through the four days of carnage as if the two of them were on a race-relations field trip. Singleton employs a similar rote pedagogy with his audience by repeating the show-and-tell scenario over and over. Duke insists his son tug on a rope throttling a black neighbor and instructs his reluctant pupil in the art of knotting a hangman’s noose. As the death toll climbs, he parts the crowd to escort his tearful son to the edge of a pit filled with corpses. “Why you cryin’, boy?” demands Duke. “There’s babies in there,” whimpers his son. The morning after, Duke tells Emmett, “I want to learn you how to live in the world.” All that remains of Rosewood by then is smoking rubble. “I hate you and you ain’t no man!” hollers Emmett, who hits the road.

His black pal Arnett takes a very different path to manhood, a passage guided by a black World War I veteran who rides into Rosewood (on a horse named Booker T. Washington) the day before the rampage starts. “You’re a man,” pronounces the iconically named Mann, the script’s key fictional character (played to mythic effect by Ving Rhames). Putting Arnett in charge of shepherding the women and children who hid in a swamp, Mann says, “You’re my lieutenant now.” He and Arnett salute each other. Mann also exchanges salutes with John Wright (Jon Voight), a white veteran of the Spanish-American War whose store and home are in Rosewood. Wright is cast in the righteous-Gentile mold of Schindler in Schindler’s List, a do-the-right-thing businessman who sides with his black customers, hiding them in his home and arranging a daring getaway by train.

Although Singleton says he picked screenwriter Gregory Poirier for Rosewood because “I was attracted to his style of writing action,” there are a few significant threads of historic texture in the movie. Economic envy adds some nuance to the racist outburst of Rosewood. And both Mann and Wright are veterans of foreign wars, their interracial bond forged by a common cause, defending Rosewood’s inhabitants. Their true fraternity is contrasted with the false solidarity of the Masons, an organization segregated at that time. A young black Mason aids a white Mason (Fanny’s lover on the lam) against the wishes of his wary father. “I ain’t no boy, I’m a man, I’m a Mason,” he says. For his trouble, he ends up dying at the hands of whites.

More often, though, Rosewood clubs the audience. The opening scenes fill the frames with wooden signs around Rosewood for the church, the Mason hall, the piano teacher’s house, and a land auction (later the arena for racial territorialism). Signs played a similar symbolic role in Boyz N the Hood, in which a group of black kids walking to school and talking about shootings are framed by “one way” and “wrong way” street signs. Rosewood ends with comparable typographic exhortations, with the words “survivors,” “African-Americans,” and “white” capitalized in titles that describe the aftermath of the Rosewood incident.

While on location last year, Singleton told the Palm Beach Post, “I don’t make films where people wear white hats and black hats.” Yet Rosewood often crudely contrasts the races. The three white families shown have problems: Fanny cheats on her husband, Duke is a single dad, Wright screws his black help in the store’s back room and his sons sass their stepmom. Compare this scene of black home life: Arnett celebrates his birthday surrounded by a warm extended family that welcomes the New Year with a family meal straight out of Norman Rockwell. White kids are read a nightmarish bedtime story about Pecos Bill cutting off people’s ears, while black kids are read a hopeful tale about a horse, anticipating the storybook hero who rides into town to save the day.

Mann emerges as a Moses, leading Rosewood’s survivors out of the swamps onto a train to freedom. This exodus, shot at night, is lit almost supernaturally to underscore the biblical allegory. As one of the white rescuers on the train observes, “The town’s in purgatory.” Rosewood depicts a crucible of manhood, an apocryphal inferno from which black Arnett and white Emmett must escape.

Singleton in his book Poetic Justice: Filmmaking South Central Style boasts that he faced down Robert Solo, the producer of Colors, at a high school assembly. “I told him he had no right to make a movie about this ’cause he knew nothing about the culture. He was marketing it as a film about gangs when actually it was a film about two white cops.” It’s ironic, then, that the white characters in Rosewood are the ones with the most emotional and moral complexity. The storekeeper, the sheriff, and even Fanny’s husband all undergo crises of conscience as the racist lava flow engulfs Rosewood. By contrast the black characters are simply heroes and victims; sketched in scant detail, their trauma and triumph have no arc. Where Jon Voight’s Wright is scripted as a complicated, conflicted figure, Ving Rhames’s Mann simply fulfills his role as role model. Like Ghosts of Mississippi, The Chamber, and a string of other movies about southern racism, this tale is shackled to a sensitive white guy.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Rosewood film still.