Rosewood isn't an angry film, or a despairing one, although nobody could blame director John Singleton if his movie had turned out that way.
By now, the true-life circumstances that inspired Singleton and screenwriter Gregory Poirier are familiar: The destruction of a thriving Florida community of African-American families in 1923, at the hands of a drunken racist mob of white residents of a nearby town. Not a pretty picture, but one that all races would be ill-advised to ignore.
The events that charred Rosewood _ and scarred our state's history _ are recaptured by Singleton in a rich and lively film that turns out to be more than just a dutiful document of terror. Rosewood doesn't spare any of those horrors in its second half; lynchings, mass graves and torture are depicted in harrowing fashion.
However, Singleton's film has much less to do with death than it does with how these people lived. Rosewood is an inspiring slice of seldom-seen African-Americana in the way it depicts the residents of this doomed town as prospering citizens; a critical missing link in the cinematic history of black people, who have more often been depicted as noble slaves or violent gangstas.
This film and last year's tender remembrance Once Upon a Time When We Were Colored are starting to fill in some of the blanks in this respect.
Singleton (Boyz N the Hood, Higher Learning) is a graduate of the esteemed University of Southern California film school and we sense that he brushed up on his class notes on John Ford and Howard Hawks for this project. Rosewood is a throwback to those sweeping western morality tales of yesteryear, with the passion level turned up a notch for matters of pride, romance and revenge. For every ugly moment, there's an uplifting one heightened by another rousing John Williams musical score.
Poirier's screenplay (which Singleton reworked, without screen credit) occasionally gets carried away by the sheer emotion of bringing this long-silenced story to the masses. Especially in the final reel, when old horse-opera sensibilities get in the way of documented facts for optimum thrill effect. The screenplay takes threads of hearsay evidence (since refugees from Rosewood stayed quiet for decades) and turns them into thundering-hoof action that will leave some historians dismayed.
On the other hand, do you really think every cowboy looked and acted like Gary Cooper? Or war heroes performed like John Wayne? All Singleton and Poirier are doing is following Liberty Valance's first law of movie heroism: Given a choice between the truth and the legend, you print the legend.
Singleton certainly fashioned a top-notch production, from the intricate details of production designer Paul Sylbert's recreations of two feuding backwoods towns, to the pulsating film editing of Bruce Cannon. Rosewood has the sort of production values that place it among the best films ever to emerge from the Sunshine State.
The high drama of Rosewood is enacted by a roster of talented actors that keep each character sharply defined. Ving Rhames is a powerful presence as Mann, a fictional drifter based on reports of black World War I veterans who settled in Florida. The screenplay, however, is thoughtful enough to show Mann's tender side and even a bit of fear, especially in his budding love affair with a young schoolteacher named Scrappie (Elise Neal).
Jon Voight continues his resurgence on-screen with a nicely modulated performance as John Wright, the only white man in Rosewood who tries to stop the escalating violence. Voight excels at playing men who seem morally hollow, and Wright's conflicted manner is a good exercise for him.
Other sensitive, textured portrayals come from Don Cheadle as Sylvester Carrier, a steadfast music teacher whose dignity makes him a target of white rage, and Esther Rolle as his mother, Sarah.
Even the bigots are provided some level of humanity, rather than the faceless goons who are portrayed for easy effect in John Grisham melodramas such as A Time to Kill or The Chamber. Michael Rooker's sheriff fairly pleads for calm, while he shares the mob's feelings. Bruce McGill plays a snarling composite of every hateful person in Levy County, but his relationship with his son (Tristan Hook) renders a telling result.
The fact that Rosewood takes time to understand its demons is an uncommon touch for any film that addresses such an inflammatory topic .
For all its excesses, Rosewood is now solidly preserved in our consciousness after 74 years of neglect, in that peculiar brand of credibility offered by the silver screen. One of the film's strengths is that we leave the theater knowing that's enough for Singleton.
MOVIE REVIEW: A-
Director: John Singleton
Cast: Ving Rhames, Jon Voight, Don Cheadle, Esther Rolle, Michael Rooker, Bruce McGill, Elise Neal
Screenplay: Gregory Poirier
Rating: R; violence, profanity, sexual situations
Running time: 132 min.
Studio: Warner Bros.