Reviewed by Dan Lybarger

February 13, 1997


Director John Singleton’s (Boyz N the Hood) new film, Rosewood, chronicles a senseless and shameful incident that one dearly wishes were only fiction.

In 1923, a white lynch mob attacked the small African American community of Rosewood, Florida and over a four-day period burned it to the ground. The attack was ostensibly provoked when a white woman named Fannie Taylor (Catherine Kellner) claimed she had been raped and beaten by a black man, but envy may have been another factor. The blacks in Rosewood were unusual because they owned their own land and were often better off than many of the whites in surrounding communities. Despite the fact that town was wiped off the face of the map and at least six blacks and two whites were killed in the attack, Fannie Taylor’s assailant was never caught. Furthermore, he may have actually been white.

Singleton and writer Gregory Poirier don’t have to embellish anything. While there are composite characters and other deviations from the sketchy historical record, most of the atrocities shown in the film are verifiable. Singleton has matured since Boyz, so he knows how to get his point across without bombarding the audience. Some of the more graphic attacks happen off screen, but Singleton still manages to keep the tension going. Singleton succeeds because he makes the residents of Rosewood and even some of the attackers human. While there are, understandably, few sympathetic whites, Singleton demonstrates how poverty and other factors motivated the mob.

Having a solid ensemble doesn’t hurt either. Jon Voight is terrific as John Wright, the town’s only white land owner, who took a great risk by sheltering several of his neighbors and leading them to safety. While Voight’s boyish face makes him seem ideal to play the hero, he doesn’t portray Wright as a saint. Wright is sometimes as condescending to blacks as the other whites in the area. At one point he tries to use the siege to gain some of his neighbor’s land. Because Wright is not a simple hero, he’s a lot more interesting.

Although Ving Rhames (Pulp Fiction) gives a magnetic performance as Mann, a WWI vet who wanders into town and helps some of the residents flee. Mann is fictitious, and his larger-than-life presence seems out of place.

Rosewood loses some of its impact towards the end. Many of the escapes are a bit too miraculous and almost undermine the credibility Singleton has worked so hard to establish. Singleton also takes too long to bring the film to a close.

Nonetheless, Rosewood is powerfully unsettling, and it is terrifying for all the right reasons ( R ). Rating: 7.


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Ó 1997 Dan Lybarger

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