RW Movie Review

Rosewood: Echoes of the Past and Present

Revolutionary Worker #898, March 16, 1997

John Singleton deserves major props for his latest film, Rosewood. It tells the story of a Black town wiped off the face of the earth by a mob of racist whites. It's the story of a pogrom in the Florida swamps that is based on real history. In drilling into the past Singleton not only strikes a nerve but presents a moving and powerful indictment of modern-day Amerikkka and all the horror it's built on. Rosewood is a film that anyone concerned about racism, national oppression and all of the other ills of this society needs to see.

Rosewood was a small town in the swamps of northwest Florida, about 30 miles southwest of Gainesville and just 8 miles shy of the Gulf Coast. It took its name from the cedar trees that grow in the swamp and provided the basis for the local logging, sawmill and other related industries in the area. Many of the cedar logs hacked out of the swamp eventually ended up in pencil factories in the North. By the 1920s the town had a population of 150 at most, all but one of the families being Black. It was a relatively prosperous town. While many of the Black men worked in the sawmill or as lumberjacks and many Black women cleaned the homes of the white people in the neighboring town of Sumner, in many ways the people of Rosewood were economically better off than their white counterparts in the nearby town on Sumner.

The people of Rosewood were landowners, and for the most part they had personally escaped the shackles of sharecropping and much of the semi-feudal oppression that came with it. Still, violent oppression and the whole system of white supremacy permeated their lives--Rosewood, after all, was still a part of the Amerikkkan South, just a little more than 50 years after slavery was ended and 45 years after Reconstruction was smashed. But their relatively independent position in relation to the white people gave the Black families of Rosewood a material basis to build up resistance to attempts to drive them back into virtual slavery. And at the same time this sense of independence really irritated the white supremacist forces in Sumner and the surrounding areas.

On New Year's Day 1923 a young white woman in Sumner, Fannie Taylor, falsely accused a Black man of breaking into her house and viciously beating her. Within the hour a lynch mob with the classic racist mission of ``protecting white womanhood'' set off to terrorize the Black people in Rosewood. They claimed to be looking for an escapee from a local chaingang named Jesse Hunter but in reality they unleashed their fury on every Black man, woman and child in Rosewood. Soon the mob grew to include about 1,500 white people--including many KKK members and other white supremacists from the surrounding cities and towns. And after a week of lynchings, rapes, mutilations, shootings, burnings and other tortures, the town of Rosewood was erased.

There was never really any investigation of the Rosewood massacre until about 70 years later. In 1923 a white judge looked into the lynching and mutilation of Sam Carter, the Rosewood blacksmith who was the first person lynched by the mob. Carter's death was declared to be from ``mischief at unknown hands''--even while the investigating judge knew many of the murderers personally and the sheriff was at the scene of the murder. Official figures say only eight people, including two whites, died in Rosewood that week. Unofficially the figures are much higher, as eyewitnesses tell of countless lynchings and mass graves. One month after the massacre, a grand jury found insufficient evidence to prosecute anyone for the crimes committed against the Black people of Rosewood.

In 1994 the Florida legislature finally investigated the massacre. And after a worried debate about setting off a flood of claims from Black, Vietnamese, Japanese, Latino and Seminole Indian people who have suffered racist abuse and pogroms in Florida, the legislature decided to give each survivor of the Rosewood massacre a small money grant as compensation.

Singleton has said that after he met with the survivors of Rosewood and heard them tell their story, he was determined to make the film. The screenwriter Greg Poirier has said that ``The most powerful thing this film has going for it is that it's true. So it was really important to stick as closely as possible to the real thing, so people don't have that out of saying, `Oh, they made a lot of it up, it wasn't that bad.' '' Still, the film has been panned by a number of critics who attack it for being ``too Hollywood,'' ``too simplistic'' or for ``departing from the facts and presenting revisionist history.'' These critics should be ashamed of themselves. They should just stop sniping and keep quiet.

Rosewood is historically accurate both in the particular and in the broadest sense. Although Singleton based a lot of the film on information from the survivors, the men and women who actually lived through the pogrom, many of the particular details of the massacre have been lost to history because of the official cover-up and the survivors' fear of retribution if they spoke up.

But Singleton has based himself very accurately on the real history of the times. This was the period know as the ``lynching era'' when, according to many southern newspapers, ``decent society'' was maintained and protected by ``the good work of Judge Lynch.'' Between 1877 and 1922 more than 3,500 Black people had been lynched throughout the country but mainly concentrated in the South. In 1922 there was a lynching at least once a week somewhere in the country. And between 1877 and 1923 hundreds of Black people were slaughtered and thousands were maimed and driven from their homes in dozens of racist pogroms.

The early 1920s were also the years when the KKK reached its peak level of membership--3 million. Singleton had ample material to draw from in painting his picture of the barbarity of the Rosewood massacre. Curiously, none of the critics who are so adamant about the historical accuracy of the film had any problem at all with the fact that the real history of Rosewood was a well-kept state secret for generations.

A Tapestry of Resistance

John Singleton tells the story of Rosewood by focusing in on a few main characters and how they respond to the situation: Sylvester Carrier (Don Cheadle), his mother Sarah (Esther Rolle), their extended family, Sylvester's sister Scrappy (Elise Neal), a Black drifter named Mann (Ving Rhames), and John Wright (Jon Voight), the local shopkeeper who, with his family, is the only white resident of Rosewood. Singleton does take some dramatic license here--after all this is art based on history and not a straight-up history lecture--and in doing so he is able to weave a stunning tapestry out of many complex characters and issues.

Singleton created two strong and heroic characters--Sylvester and Mann--out of the one historical figure Sylvester Carrier. The real life Sylvester was known as the best hunter and marksman in the area and a piano teacher who was described in the Washington Post as a ``Negro desperado.'' He had hard experience with the treachery of the local white people--who framed Sylvester and his father for cattle rustling and sent them to jail.

In the film, Sylvester is a music teacher, fearless in the face of the white townspeople and the local white authorities. He believes that times have changed and that his social position deserves respect and he demands this respect for himself and all of his people. When the pogrom begins Sylvester argues for armed self defense. When it becomes clear that the lynch mob is gunning for Sylvester he refuses to run and hide, stating, ``Colored folks just can't be running all the time. There comes a time when you got to stand up and defend your life.''

Mann comes from another section of the people. He's a drifter with nothing to call his own besides his horse, his clothes and the money in his pockets. He's a World War I vet with experience in the horrors of fighting a war for Amerikkka and training in the skills of combat. Mann expects to be treated with respect but has no illusions about things changing for the better--without a war. Mann seems to be constantly on guard and carries with him a permanent rope burn scar around his neck as testimony to his experience with lynch mobs. Still, Mann hesitates in the face of the pogrom--fearing that because he is a stranger he will be an immediate target of a lynch mob and that the Black folks in town will not back him up--until reality smacks him in the head and he rides back into town and plays a genuinely heroic role.

Sarah, Sylvester's mother and the respected elder of the Carrier family, is a hard-working dignified woman who knows what it means to live under and stand up to white supremacy. When Sylvester tells her that times have changed, she sharply reminds him that ``Times ain't never changed for no crackers.'' Sarah was born and raised on a plantation where she watched her father and others routinely beaten to within an inch of their lives for ``crimes'' the plantation master knew full well they didn't commit.

Sarah saw the man who beat Fanny Taylor in Sumner and she--like the sheriff and many of the goons in the mob--knows that it wasn't a Black man. But Sarah also knows that the truth doesn't make any difference in a society where white supremacy is not only one of the main pillars holding it up but creates the whole climate within which people can act and relate to one another. When Sarah's niece tells her that she has to tell the white people that she knows a white man beat the woman, Sarah answers without hesitation and with a tremendous amount of hatred--"Don't matter what man was beating on Fannie Taylor. N*gger, just another word for guilty!'' When Sarah is finally forced to confront the lynch mob with the truth that the assailant was white--in a desperate attempt to save her son's life--she pays a very dear price.

A Web of White Supremacy

Singleton also paints a picture of white people in the film that is far from simplistic. He shows us the web of murderous social relations where Fannie Taylor--afraid that her husband would beat her up when he discovered that she had been beaten by her white lover--relied on the whole system of white supremacy to save her from the abuse of her husband. He shows us the property relations where the white men of the town are primed for a lynch mob mentality when Mann outbids the white shopkeeper Wright for a plot of land. And Singleton brilliantly explores the whole dynamic of the lynch mob--and brings to life the way that white supremacy was, and is, perpetuated and enforced.

We see the role of the sheriff, now egging on the mob, now attempting to hold it back--beholden to the local power structure who threaten him if he can't prove that he can ``keep his n*ggers in line.'' We see the whole ideology of white supremacy unfold as members of the mob express resentment at the fact that Sylvester, a Black man, owns a piano--revealing how they have been totally conditioned to think that if Black people aren't on the bottom, then something must be wrong somewhere. We see the routine brutality of unofficial terror--where the white mob knows that they have official protection to carry out the most inhuman crimes against Black people with joyful abandon. We see the murderous process behind the historic photos of whites grinning for the camera while charred and mutilated bodies of Black people swing from the limbs of the background trees. These are people who are trained from their earliest days in the do's and don'ts of white supremacy and very carefully pass it on from father to son down through the generations. It is the face of a system of oppression that can only be taken down by force of arms.

As the film ends Singleton also closes the circles on the links between white supremacy and male domination, as the drunken lynch mob reveals that many of them have used and abused Fannie Taylor and treated her like a whore. And her husband goes home from lynching and murdering Black people to beat her--because she embarrassed him in front of other men.

Rosewood also presents a number of white people who--for varying reasons--step up to defend and help the Black people. But here too things are complex--as the layers of white supremacy defining their lives begin to be torn away. John Wright is the local white shopkeeper who fancies himself a ``fair man.'' While he maintains a cordial--although paternalistic and opportunistic--relationship with the Black people, he also has a stake in and benefits from the way things run under white supremacy. When the pogrom begins Wright is genuinely torn over which side he will stand on. This vacillation goes on for quite some time until Wright is finally forced into siding with the Black people by a truly horrendous crime his actions indirectly help bring about. From this point on, Wright not only takes his own actions to help the Black people but he actively organizes other whites to do the same. When the two white train engineers are hesitant about using their train to help the Black women and children escape the racist terror for fear of putting their train on the line, Wright forcefully challenges them by saying, ``I'm not asking you to put your train on the line, I'm asking you to put your asses on the line.''

In the end, Singleton uses two very moving incidents to hold out hope for a future of respect and equality between Black and white people--but only on the basis of white people totally rejecting white supremacy and doing whatever it takes to fight against the oppression of Black people.

Echoes to the Present

While watching Rosewood it's almost impossible not to think about the situation in the U.S. today. The lynch mob scenes conjure up the blue-uniformed mobs with badges in cities from coast to coast, rampaging through neighborhoods and housing projects and terrorizing the people. When hundreds of prisoners come running out of the woods to catch the train in the final scene we are reminded of the systematic criminalization of youth and the return of the chaingangs. In the jealous cracker complaining about Sylvester's piano we hear the white backlash over affirmative action. We find echoes of the whitewash of the racist cop Mark Fuhrman. We are reminded that white folks still think they can rely on this white supremacy system to cover up their crimes--as in scandals of the last few years where a white man in Boston blamed his wife's murder on an unknown Black assailant and a woman blamed the drowning of her son on an unknown Black carjacker.

All of the actors in the film commented on how the film resonates today. Don Cheadle told the L.A. Times during the filming that ``I hope this movie will inspire people to be curious and investigate our history. We seem to be in a resurgence of racism and xenophobia and conflict right now. I think if you understand why, you're better able to deal with it.'' For his part, Singleton was also clear about the connection between today and 1923 Rosewood and the importance of this film. In an interview also done during the filming Singleton said, ``We live in the same country that existed 73 years ago. I don't see any irony in it at all. If white men are still burning down churches in the South on a regular basis, then I really don't think things have changed that much. I think that enlightened people will make a connection. And I think there are other people who just don't want to hear it. They definitely don't want to think about the horror of what came before, and of the fact that what came before is evident now also.<193> I think maybe the movie will bear the brunt of a lot of people--like the people around here--who will say `Why you bringing that up? Why you talking about this?' But why not? If you don't talk about it, then it could happen again and again and again. It's more than why not. It's like the Holocaust because you can never forget.''

For anyone who wants to know the reality for Black people in this country, Rosewood is a must see.

This article is posted in English and Spanish on Revolutionary Worker Online
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