Rosewood

John Singleton probably wouldn’t enjoy being likened to Steven Spielberg, but his Rosewood cements the likeness (it even has a John Williams score). I mean that as a compliment. Singleton’s best work (Boyz N the Hood, Higher Learning), like Spielberg’s, has a sincerity rare in these ironic times, and an emotional directness rarer still. He also lifts bits of many earlier movies, but he uses them as archetypes or icons, not as half-baked homages. That’s the difference between an opportunistic copycat (howdy, George Lucas) and an artist.

Rosewood is John Singleton’s epic — his bold attempt to mount a Schindler’s List-caliber tale of courage in the face of annihilation. The movie is based on the real-life 1923 massacre in Rosewood, Florida, a swampside town populated almost exclusively by blacks. In the neighboring town of Sumner, a white woman beaten by her white lover blames her bruises on a black man, and the vicious crackers of Sumner descend on Rosewood, a place they’ve always resented: The blacks there are economically (if not socially) better off than the whites.

Singleton’s camera regards the ensuing atrocity with a mixture of unblinking documentary style and fleeting glimpses of horror. The technique explicitly recalls Spielberg’s shocking ghetto-liquidation scene in Schindler’s List, with the added chilling knowledge that this happened in this country, in this century. The massacre is among the most ferociously repulsive sequences ever filmed — the racist id at play.

To balance the horror, Rosewood has two iconic heroes — black war veteran Mr. Mann (Ving Rhames) and white storekeeper John Wright (Jon Voight) — and this is perhaps where many people will part company with Singleton. The classical heroism of these men (especially Mr. Mann, who’s right out of a western) would seem jarring juxtaposed with the ugly realism of the lynch mobs and slaughtered babies. But Gregory Poirier’s script gives these great actors room to dig deep. Ving Rhames is warmer and more open than I’ve seen him before, and Voight, as a man torn between fear and compassion, does his most detailed work in years.

The climax, a frantic chase through the swamp that ends aboard a speeding train, has struck even some of Rosewood‘s admirers (like Roger Ebert) as too much of an action-movie finish. Which poses a question. Is Rosewood a conventional escape movie with serious concerns, or a serious film that uses heart-pounding conventions to achieve catharsis? I’d say the latter, and I would add that the highly-acclaimed but thoroughly ugly Mississippi Burning, whose black characters were mostly cringing victims, did the same thing. Rosewood does it a lot better.

The sense one gets from Rosewood is that John Singleton was eager to tell a horrifying but ultimately satisfying story in which black people score a small win against the most appalling racism. As in Schindler’s List, you win by surviving or fleeing. Singleton makes sure his fleeing heroes do some damage, too. Manipulative? Sure. But at the end of this long and bruising study of racism, it’s hard to begrudge Singleton (or ourselves) the strong pleasure of a movie-ish blaze of glory.

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