John Singleton’s Rosewood makes you feel the shock of racial violence — the obscenity of it. In 1923, the residents of Rosewood, a tranquil all-black agrarian village in central Florida, bask in their hard-toiling prosperity. Several generations removed from slavery, they have farms, businesses, a community. They have freedom — or, at least, a hermetic approximation of it. For it’s a freedom they can share only with one another. In the adjacent, comparatively poor all-white town of Sumner, the citizens look at Rosewood with suspicion and envy. The very power of American upward mobility has shaken the firmament of Dixie — its racial-social hierarchy.
When one of the whites gets beaten up by her extramarital lover, she’s so flooded with rage and guilt that her hysteria explodes like shrapnel at the most convenient available target. ”It was a nigger!” she wails. There are rumors of a recently escaped black convict, and with this mythical culprit in mind, the men of Sumner form a lynch mob. They never do locate the suspect, but in a sense they start to see him everywhere — in the face of any innocent black man who knows nothing of the crime. Out for ”justice,” the mob consumes its own purpose, becoming an end in itself, a jamboree of lynching, shooting, burning, slaughter.
Singleton’s first feature, Boyz N the Hood (1991), had more than a touch of preachiness (his other movies drowned in it). Now, at 29, he has taken a great leap toward artistic maturity. Rosewood is based on an all-but-forgotten episode first reported on in 1982 by the St. Petersburg Times, and Singleton, drawing his inspiration from Schindler’s List, works with a solid, emotionally heated craftsmanship that makes you think, Yes, it could have looked something like this. In the first part of the movie, he sketches in the community of Rosewood with serene observation — friendships, families, a flowering romance. Don Cheadle, as a piano teacher, displays a rare blend of gentleness and grit. And when Ving Rhames shows up as the oh-so-symbolically named Mr. Mann, a burly, quietly cocksure World War I veteran looking to make a home somewhere, the town’s excitement gathers around him. You revel in the way that Rhames, with his smoked-hickory voice, takes the exact measure of each situation, and then — only then — acts.
In these quietly affecting scenes, a whole way of life passes vibrantly before our eyes. We thus experience the violence as a full-scale obliteration of humanity. Singleton still needs to try for more subtlety; the ugliness of the white rage, though powerful, could have been more modulated. Still, he gets a fine, soul-troubled performance out of Jon Voight as the film’s Oskar Schindler figure, an imperious yet morally conflicted shopkeeper who has made himself the unofficial ”massah” of Rosewood. As the village is destroyed, its people humiliated, hunted down, and murdered, Singleton brings the images and underlying psychological truths of American racial violence to the screen with a brute dramatic force that few directors have matched. He stages the massacre not as a fixed, iconic event but as a horrifically fluid organism that feeds, drop by drop, on its own hatred; before our eyes, vengeance metastasizes into genocide. The whites, as the film reveals, hate the blacks because they see them as repositories of all the sin they themselves want to be free of. The truth, of course — the real horror — is that they can’t see them at all.