THREE STARS - Challenging
Communicating the complexity of racial hatred is not an easy task, but director John Singleton has made an effective attempt in his most recent film “Rosewood.”
Based on the true story of the destruction of Rosewood, Florida in 1923, Singleton has the wisdom to portray both the individual choices and the societal permissions which made such evil possible.
Rosewood was a town in which African-Americans had banded together in economic strength. With the exception of a white store-owner, every property in the town was owned by a black person. Their mutual support and strong Christian faith centering around the African Methodist Episcopal church created a prosperous and respectable community.
But the success of their efforts created such a jealousy among the poorer white residents of a neighboring town that when the excuse arises, the whites riot against their neighbors with the tacit approval of “the law.”
The trigger which ignites the mountain of economic jealousy and racial hatred is the false accusation of a young white woman that she had been beaten by a black man.
Though the sheriff later admitted that he knew the woman to be an immoral adulteress and that she was most probably lying to cover-up her affair with an abusive white man, he nevertheless assembled a frenzied posse to find her black attacker. This decision brought about the death of Rosewood and the majority of her inhabitants.
There are most often interactive causes of evil. For evil to truly have its way, it must have the support not only of individuals who are willing to lie or ignore the truth, but it must also have the permission of the larger society in which it resides. If either individuals or society stands up to the evil, it can be stopped.
From the time of the Civil War until the Civil Rights movement 100 years later, over 3,800 lynchings of African-Americans by their white neighbors were permitted. That evil can never be understood without realizing that the legal system which should have called those murderers to account for their crimes was criminal as well.
In this film, the socially-sanctioned “control” of the African-American people by such mob-violence is a primal evil which is clearly portrayed by not only the actions of the sheriff, but that of the judge and governor as well.
But the power of the film is that it goes even deeper in giving us a taste of the struggle. Present within the film are four persons, each of whom represent a different response to the racial struggle.
The first person is the only white landowner of Rosewood, Mr. Wright (Jon Voight). Mr. Wright is representative of the white person who leaves white society and lives within the black community.
But what is his motivation for doing so? Is he just a modern “master,” as he is accused of being, enslaving his customers through economic loans, or is he truly one with them, a fellow human being willing to risk his life and fortune to care for those in danger?
As the film powerfully explores, in a society divided clearly into racial categories, those who try to be members of both communities are forced to make a choice.
The second person presented in the film is Mr. Wright’s wife. Set in strong contrast to the hypocritical Christians who are loading their rifles while at a baptism service pledging allegiance to love as Jesus loved, Mrs. Wright lives out an authentic Christian response.
For Mrs. Wright, the question is not one of race but one of love. When the Rosewood citizens are fleeing for their life, many turn to Mrs. Wright for protection and she takes them in, even risking her own life to protect them from the mob.
The third person presented is a powerful black man named Mr. Mann (Ving Rhames). Representing the courage, strength and power of the African-American, Mann uses his power in a way which protects the women and children of Rosewood.
Finally, the fourth character is an uneducated, vile, violent and disturbed white man who is the one who shoots first and most often. This man stands for the bigotry which relishes the killing. In a powerful symbol of hope, when he attempts to pass his hatred to his adolescent son, his son rejects him and leaves his home.
“Rosewood” is a significant film worthy our study. The historical incident it portrays addresses issues that are still unresolved today.