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ROSEWOOD // THE ACTORS WHO INHABIT ROSEWOOD

Don Cheadle earned a measure of celebrity and respect when he "wasn't" nominated for an Academy Award last year, although his performance as a zoot-suited psycho in Devil in a Blue Dress won prizes from two critics' groups and the NAACP Image Awards.

Cheadle's exclusion from the Oscar race was cited by groups who protested the alleged exclusion of African-Americans from the academy.

In Rosewood, Cheadle portrays Sylvester Carrier, a proud and relatively prosperous music teacher whose home becomes a flash point for racial violence when a mob attacks.

"That was the only home he ever knew," Cheadle said during an interview in Manhattan. "His blood was literally in the land. It was unfathomable for him to leave it, especially being chased out by thugs.

"People say, oh, he was defiant. To me, defiance means being in the face of some authority. But the only authority (the mob) had was that they were bullies. To run from that simply wasn't in his makeup."

Cheadle believes Rosewood is an important lesson for all races, after 70 years of shamed and fearful silence.

"There's a lot of elements that went into why this thing blew up," he explained. "There was an economic disparity between the two that caused a lot of jealousy and rage. It's important to see all those details because you can recognize it, if you see it again. And, hopefully, dismantle it before it gets out of control."

The role of Fanny Taylor doesn't occupy much screen time in Rosewood, but her circumstances and Catherine Kellner's shanty-trash performance are stunning.

Fanny Taylor is the resident of the sawmill town of Sumner who ignited three days of violence in Levy County, apparently in order to save her own hide. Her frantic screams that a black man had beaten her started the hysteria that resulted in at least eight deaths. Historians _ and Singleton _ believe she was hiding an affair with a white man that turned cruel.

Kellner is the opposite of her character: New York City-born and trained in stageworks, to an extent that she thought Singleton wouldn't hire her, since he wanted a Southern woman for the role. She auditioned without learning her lines, due to a mix-up in scheduling. Singleton hired her after watching a videotape, believing she was from the South, and admiring her decision to play the scene with her head bowed.

"He didn't know I was looking at my lines, because I had them resting on my lap," she said.

Kellner's only previous film exposure was a small role in Six Degrees of Separation in 1994. Now she wonders if the role of Fanny Taylor will make her a little too recognizable.

"After we watched the movie, John said to me: "You're not going to be able to walk down the street; you're going to get your butt kicked. Everyone's going to hate you so much,' " Kellner joked. "He kept assuring me that was a good thing."

Yes, Ving Rhames is just as imposing in person as he appears on-screen. Magnetic and gruff, with a rich, rumbling voice that demands you listen, not just hear. He plays the central, fictional character called Mann, who warily rides from one war in Europe to another in Rosewood.

Rhames is one of the hardest-working character actors in Hollywood today, and one of the toughest to overlook for his sheer physical presence: The cobra eyes of a gangster pulling the strings of Pulp Fiction, a burly secret agent defending Dave or intently plotting a Mission: Impossible. Rhames' intimidation factor is one of the best set-ups in occasional comedy, such as a deadpan wisecrack in Striptease, or slicking back the hair that should be there at a hoe-down in Rosewood.

We don't expect Ving Rhames to kid around, but we feel momentarily relieved when he does.

Rhames is serious business when it comes to his latest film and its importance to America's race relations.

"I look at Rosewood being burned down and I see black churches being burned down," Rhames recently observed. "If there's going to be any racial harmony, we have to begin at some level of historical truth.

"So often, we are taught as people of African-American descent to not talk about subjects like that: "Oh, well, that was in the past. Forget about it.'

"Jewish people are taught to remember their culture, remember the Holocaust. Talk to their children about it. Schindler's List makes $100-million. Black people should be the same way. Rosewood is the kind that makes America hold the mirror to nature and look at itself."

The lone white voice of reason in Rosewood belonged to storekeeper John Wright, who sheltered African-Americans chased by racists and aided their escape from what used to be their home. Academy Award winner Jon Voight adopted that voice and those deeds for John Singleton's film.

"John Wright was of the time of Jim Crow laws in the United States, which were a horror: legalized insanity," Voight said, dissecting his role. "How do people respond when they're in a society like that?"

Voight's own advocacy of civil rights and Vietnam-veteran causes has been recorded for years. Playing a man teetering on the edge of racism _ exploiting black customers while protecting them from hate _ was a very personal acting challenge.

"That was the work, to have him represent that aspect; a human being given legal ability to have an edge over another human being," Voight said. "I wanted to play all the meaner aspects of this guy. Sometimes I had to be reminded of that, however, because the instinct wasn't there.

"When he's challenged with a big problem, which takes a sizable person to respond, we question his ability to respond. We know we're in trouble if he's going to be a hero."

Wright's response to this crisis, as opposed to the other whites who terrorized, inspired Voight to add:

"Evil does not exist in an entire race. Evil exists in individual people who can dishonor an entire race."

Changing people's perceptions through art is nothing new to Esther Rolle, who gained stardom in groundbreaking 1970s CBS sitcoms Maude and its spin-off, Good Times. Both television series gave working-class women of color a rare, firm-handed role model to admire, and all races someone to cherish.

That image makes her a perfect choice for the role of Sarah Carrier, the town matriarch who holds a scandalous secret too long for anyone's good in Rosewood.

Her television past also prepared Rolle for any possibly harsh reactions to the way John Singleton depicted this incendiary incident. Maude and Good Times raised an equal amount of eyebrows and consciousness, and Rolle believes Rosewood will do the same.

"The film might change some attitudes," she said. "Unfortunately, it might make some people angry. The truth doesn't always soothe. It sometimes rubs you the wrong way."

One aspect of the film that Rolle embraced was the character of John Wright and his struggle to help the persecuted black residents of Rosewood. Rolle thinks there are white people with similar, but silent, convictions today.

"A lot of whites would be happier if things were told, or if people who didn't agree with what's going on would speak out," Rolle told a group of interviewers last week in New York. "You lead me to believe that (white people) all believe it. You all seem to agree. Silence is not golden in that respect."

Rolle's refusal to be morally mute was her primary reason for playing Sarah Carrier in Rosewood.

"The main consideration for me was being able to speak for a voiceless people," she said. "These things happen all over these United States. Unless we who can speak (will) speak out, they'll never be heard."

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