It has the dramatic weight of a tragic true story. It was directed by one of Hollywood’s most gifted young filmmakers. It got the kind of buildup generally reserved for prestige pictures that get Academy Award nominations. So why didn’t Rosewood reach an audience last spring, and why aren’t the Hollywood oddsmakers predicting Oscars for the film? Were people turned off by this graphic depiction of racist atrocity? Or by director John Singleton’s ill-advised use of action-movie cliches, designed to give moviegoers something to feel good about? In fact, it was both. Too harsh to be a popcorn movie and too undermined by make-believe to be the Important Film it was intended to be, Rosewood is ultimately neither.
For its first evocative hour, the film re-creates its time and place with loving attention to mood and detail. The time is 1923. The place is Rosewood, Fla., a self-sufficient, mostly black hamlet peacefully coexisting with the neighboring, mostly white town of Sumner. Then, with mounting fury, Singleton shatters that peace: A trashy white woman claims she was beaten by a black man; the Sumner good ol’ boys take off on a wild-goose chase; the manhunt quickly flares into a frenzy of lynchings, shootings, and burnings. As idyllic as it was early on, Rosewood is that horrific most of the rest of the way.
In bringing this sobering history lesson to the screen, Singleton has said he was inspired by Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List, (and, indeed, there are striking parallels between the two films. Both revolve around reluctant heroes who progress from complacency to horror to crisis of conscience, before finally doing the right thing. In Schindler’s List, that hero is Oscar Schindler (Liam Neeson), a German entrepreneur who gradually rejects Hitler’s Final Solution, engineering an exodus of his Jewish factory employees from Nazi Poland. In Rosewood, he’s John Wright (Jon Voight), a white Rosewood store owner who recoils at the genocidal rage of the Sumner mob and arranges safe passage for fleeing women and children on a midnight train out of town. That both men are outsiders helping oppressed people they once exploited makes them problematic heroes at best. But the fact is, they were real, they were there. They were heroes. They did something when it would have been easy, even prudent, for a good man to do absolutely nothing.
But, evidently, John Wright wasn’t hero enough for Singleton, who has taken it upon himself to add a second, fictitious hero — one who could presumably boost the box office by giving moviegoers someone they could stand up and cheer. His name is Mr. Mann — just Mr. Mann — and, as played by the smoldering Ving Rhames, he’s impressive all right. The problem is, he’s so much larger-than-life that he seems to have come from another movie — indeed, from another movie tradition.
From the moment Mr. Mann turns on a pursuing mob with two guns blazing to the climactic train escape when he blows away half a dozen good ol’ boys, Mr. Mann is a hero on a grand old Hollywood scale. But while Mr. Mann’s crowd-pleasing payback makes Rosewood’s horrors more bearable, it ultimately works against Singleton’s somber message. In a movie that wants to show the ugly truth about a forgotten outrage in America’s past, Rhames’s two-gun avenger represents a heavy dose of wishful thinking, a feel-good placebo that falsely numbs the pain. The exasperating irony is that Singleton didn’t have to pump up his invented hero to make him a crowd-pleaser. Mr. Mann’s heroism would have been much more dramatic — and more believable — if, while leading all those women and children to the train, he was forced to pull out just one gun and shoot down one bad man.
There is a place for movie heroes like Mr. Mann. But not in Rosewood. He belongs in a full-blown revisionist Western: the kind Mario Van Peebles tried to make with his MTV-style Posse, the kind Sidney Poitier did make with Buck and the Preacher. In his underrated Western, Poitier plays an ex-Union soldier defending a wagon train of former slaves from racist marauders. Following in the boot prints of guys like Shane and Hondo, Buck blazed the trail for Mr. Mann. But he’s the wrong role model for the hero of Rosewood. In a classic Western yarn, we can believe in heroes like Buck. In a historical drama, they stick out like an itchy trigger finger.
Maybe Singleton should just do a Western and get it out of his system. Or maybe he’ll accomplish that with his upcoming remake of Shaft. Either way, it’ll be interesting to watch this talented filmmaker jump into a genre flick with both feet and shoot his way out. Maybe it’ll clear his head for that next Important Film. C+