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History Hurts

Eli Reed

Flight to Freedom: Jon Voight (center) tries to help the besieged residents of Rosewood escape a lynch mob.

John Singleton turns a searing lens on real-life 1920s racists in fictionalized 'Rosewood'

By Nicky Baxter

ACCORDING to regional press reports, eight people of African descent were killed the night white terrorists burned down the all-black town of Rosewood, Fla, some 70 years ago. Survivors and other researchers place the death toll at between 60 and 150. Thanks to director John Singleton, Rosewood gives us a glimpse of history that many would just as soon wish away. Singleton, who made his name with the controversial Boyz N the Hood, has again taken a poke at the festering sore of race relations, but this isn't a screen version of O.J. run amok or yet another take on Glock-triggered black gang genocide. Rosewood focuses on postbellum mass violence against colored folk, and Singleton and the film's other principals have done their homework, most notably producer Jon Peters, whose interest in the massacre was first piqued by a 60 Minutes report in 1983.

A married white woman (Catherine Kellner) is savagely beaten by her lover, also white. Fearful of her husband's reaction to her badly bruised body, she blames it on a "big and black" man. A gang of whites with blood in their eyes and whiskey in their bellies decide to mete out some justice KKK-style. So far, so predictable. The difference between Rosewood and, say, Roots is that the African Americans fight back.

Rosewood boasts two black men who, although respectful almost to a fault, are no Stepin Fetchits either. Sylvester Carrier (Don Cheadle of Devil in a Blue Dress) carries himself with solemn dignity. When he strides up to the porch of the white man rumored to be having his way with Carrier's young cousin he doesn't mince words--the slightly built Carrier's cocked shotgun says the rest. Rosewood's black knight is the film's one thoroughly fictionalized character. As Mann, a decorated WWI veteran, Ving Rhames (Dangerous Ground; Pulp Fiction) might be considered a bulkier version of Clint Eastwood's high plains drifter. Like Eastwood's taciturn cowboy, Mann has a mysterious past, and that hangman's necklace from which he somehow escaped surely must have been nicked from Hang 'Em High.

Mann and Carrier are the only black male characters that show some gumption; the rest of Rosewood's men seem to have been on sabbatical. Though the murderous posse from the neighboring town of Sumner leaves several black bodies (including a woman) swinging from trees like strange fruit, thanks to the combined efforts of Mann and a cowardly but avaricious storekeeper (Jon Voight), the Rosewood survivors are led away from the hysteria by train.

As the stout Carrier family matriarch, Sarah (Esther Rolle) puts in a credible performance; she's a pragmatist from the "yassuh 'em to death" school, but when that doesn't work, she confronts the Sumner vigilantes with the truth and is shot to death for her troubles. Voight's role is more complex; as the only white store owner in Rosewood, he is a throwback to the postslavery sharecropping system where, no matter what, the coloreds stay in debt. Caught between the good ol' boys bloodlust, his greed and his conscience, he rather belatedly decides to do the right thing. History hurts, but sometimes its cathartic effect is necessary to move forward. Rosewood is a good beginning.

Rosewood (R; 139 min.), directed by John Singleton, written by Gregory Poirier, photographed by Johnny E. Jensen and starring Ving Rhames, Don Cheadle and Jon Voight.

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From the February 27-March 5, 1997 issue of Metro

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