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John Singleton's Rosewood is a powerful picture, that sheds light on a nearly forgotten tragic chapter in American history. The story concerns the massacre of the residents of Rosewood, Florida in 1923. It started, because of a white woman claiming she was beaten and raped by a black man. In reality, it was her white lover (Robert Patrick). The woman lied, so as not to get more severely beaten by her jealous husband. The results were horrific. Lynchings, torturings and killings of innocent people ensued in the following days. The state government declared a mere six people were killed, but the survivors of the massacre (most of whom were young children when their elders were killed) claimed as many as 50 to 250 dead in Rosewood.
Much of the opening half hour introduces us to the characters of the all-black town of Rosewood, and the poorer all-white town of Sumner. Among the various characters, there is Rosewood's town grocer and only white resident Mr. Right (Jon Voight), who wants to remain neutral in the whole matter, but gets caught up in the fire storm anyway. The WWI veteran Mr. Mann (Ving Rhames), who rides into town on a horse and who shows characteristics similar to that of the mythical Western cowboys, Shane or Woodrow F. Call of Lonesome Dove. And we meet a family that is the heart and soul of Rosewood, dominated by a kindly matriarch (Good Times Esther Rolle, in a heartfelt performance) and her son, the music teacher Sylvester (Don Cheadle).
There are dozens of memorable actors in this film, including Rhames (usually typecast as the heavy) in his first leading man role, and Voight whose character reminds me of Oskar Schindler, in the way that he helps out the black residents of Rosewood, even at the risk of being lynched himself by the racist, bloodthirsty mob, which is spreading terror throughout the county. By far Singleton's best work on film, he thoroughly visually captures the era of the 1920's, instilling heart and soul into this period of time. The sets, cinematography and the score by John Williams are all terrific.
But it's Singleton who does the greatest job, as he captures the pain and suffering the survivors had to go through and what a horror the South was at the time. There's also a subtle message about how the more things change, the more they remain the same. Such is the case of the woman who sets off the deadly chain reaction that destroys Rosewood. Her blaming a fake black man for her rape, is similar to Susan Smith's blaming a fake black man for the murder of her two children, when it was really Smith, herself, who killed them. Singleton does exactly what Flaubert wanted Harriet Beecher Stowe to do with Uncle Tom's Cabin. He depicts a real American tragedy. He doesn't constantly make asides to the audience of what tragedies are befalling his characters.