by Mark Leeper
We still don't know much about Mark Leeper, but he writes a damn good review!
Blood and Wine -- Waiting For Guffman
L5: First City in Space -- Marvin's Room
This is a
powerful historical account
with an epic feel made on a subject that has never
been adequately covered by film. This story of a
race massacre in 1923 Florida is intelligent and
exciting, a difficult mix. Stylistically similar
to MATEWAN and perhaps even better, John
Singleton's film will probably be among the best of
Rating: +3 (-4 to +4)
I suppose for me the low point of ROSEWOOD was when at the end of the opening credit sequence it says the film is based on a true story and then immediately sets the date as Thursday, December 31, 1922. It damages the credibility of a film when a screenwriter seemingly could not be bothered to pick up a World Almanac to check a day of the week. (A quick calculation told me it was a Sunday.) Indeed, the story that is told is admitted to be still very controversial in its facts and a filmmaker generally has no good way of distinguishing, scene-by-scene, fact from conjecture. This is one version of the events and one that still may be closer to the truth than the Florida state's official version. ROSEWOOD gives us a harrowing depiction of the race massacre as it has not been shown on film before and one that some people will be reluctant to believe could happen in this country.
In the early 1920s the town of Rosewood is a prosperous black community in what should have been a pleasant natural setting in Florida. However, there are long simmering resentments by local whites, many of whom were not so successful but who felt a natural superiority because of their skin color. The film opens the day before the historic events to give a view of life in and around Rosewood. Whites with some money use the blacks for menial tasks and generally seem more interested in fooling around than in actual work, most of which seems to be being done by blacks. We focus particularly on two men. The first is John Wright (played by Jon Voight) who runs a grocery and general store in Rosewood. He deals with blacks every day but still thinks there is something not quite right about blacks being allowed to join the army and kill white Germans. He is not above taking sexual advantage of his seventeen-year-old black clerk. Today he would be classed as a bigot, but for 1922 he almost passes as a reasonable and enlightened man. We see riding into town a tall, dark, handsome stranger, in the tradition of Westerns, who is just visiting the area looking for a place to settle down. He is Mann (Ving Rhames), an erudite army veteran. One more or less expects his dramatic arrival to be part of the chain of events that starts the riot that is to come, but that story is told fairly accurately and he and Wright are purely fictional characters created for the purpose of the story. The actual historic incident begins New Year's Day when white Fannie Taylor (Catherine Kellner) is beaten by her white lover. In order avoid the wrath of her jealous husband and to explain the bruises to the community she claims that a black man came to her door and started beating her. The person who really beat her was seen by her hired help, Sarah Carrier (Esther Rolle), but Sarah is afraid to speak out and risk vengeance on herself. "'Nigger' is another word for guilty," she laments. Fannie carefully added to her story that she was not raped, but the local low-class white population, chaffing at the mere presence, not to mention prosperity, of some of the blacks, forms a lynch mob to find victims. And so the events start rolling. Before they are over the very landscape will look like a war zone of lynchings, burnings, and shootings.
Chief among the mob is Duke (Bruce McGill), local white trash who in the course of the film glories over his good work of killing blacks and tries carefully to pass on to his son the finer points of how to tie a noose and the best ways to lynch a black in some of the most chilling scenes of the film. Still Gregory Poirier's script, which may at times be overstated, shies away from showing the events in their full grimness. At the height of the killing the script brings in Mann, a larger than life hero to protect the young. Sadly his heroics are just a wishful fantasy of the script, though some exciting action sequences toward the end of the film really are based on fact. One of the strengths of the script is the ambiguity of some of the characters. Is grocer Wright a bigot who will side with the lynch mob or will he side with the blacks that he has known. How do we place Mrs. Wright the quiet and ineffectual churchwoman. Is Mann ultimately a coward or a hero? Is Sheriff Walker, who walks with the mob, restraining the killers or supporting them?
It is odd that in a film by and about black people the most interesting character is white, but Jon , ambiguous tradesman really remains just about the best thing in a very good film. In stark contrast to his muted character, Ving Rhames is magnetic and powerful, but somehow seems to have stepped into the wrong film. He is the one flaw in the otherwise very good period feel of this film. This is a man who would have fit much better into a brash Western--in fact his character seems as if he could have been based on the Danny Glover part in SILVERADO. There must have been some sort need felt to have a black hero. In fact historically the real heroes, and we do see a little of this in the film, are the white people who risked bringing the wrath of the mob onto themselves to give shelter to blacks.
At 140 minutes, this film qualifies as a genuine film epic, and one of the few we have seen in a while. It has the feel, however, of a film that used a low-budget wisely rather than being a big-budget film. In that regard it is very similar to MATEWAN. I have not cared for what I have seen from director John Singleton to this point, including the highly-touted BOYZ N THE HOOD, but ROSEWOOD is quite another matter.
This is a film that deserves multiple viewings. I give it a +3 on the -4 to +4 scale.
More info at the Internet Movie Database
The following is an account of the Rosewood Incident as described in a Florida State document submitted on March 24, 1994 in investigation of the incident. SPECIAL MASTER'S FINAL REPORT The Honorable Bo Johnson Speaker of the House of Representatives Suite 420, The Capitol Tallahassee, Florida 32399-1300 RE: HB 591 by Representatives De Grandy and Lawson Claim of Arnett Goins, Minnie Lee Langley, et al. v. State of Florida FINDINGS OF FACT: THIS IS AN EQUITABLE CLAIM SEEKING $7.2 MILLION FOR DAMAGES RESULTING FROM THE 1923 DESTRUCTION OF ROSEWOOD, FLORIDA. [Text deleted] Upon review of the record presented, and consideration of the sworn testimony, the following description of the events which occurred in Rosewood in 1923 emerges. In January of 1923 Rosewood was a small, mostly African-American community of approximately 120 residents located on the Seaboard Air Line Railroad in western Levy County, nine miles east of Cedar Key. Today the site of Rosewood is marked on State Road 24. At one time the community had a timber mill, a post office, several stores, a depot and hotel; however, by 1923 the cedar wood had been harvested, and the sawmill operations moved to Sumner, a somewhat larger community, three miles west of Rosewood. The black residents remaining at Rosewood earned a living by working at the Cummer sawmill in Sumner, trapping and hunting, and vegetable farming. In addition, several of the black women of Rosewood worked in domestic capacities for the white residents of Sumner. The main store of Rosewood was owned and operated by a white man named John Wright. In 1923 the black community of Rosewood consisted of approximately twenty families, many of whom were closely related through marriages. Some of the black families owned their homes as well as other property in the area. The community had a one-room school, at least two churches, and a masonic lodge. The railroad depot remained, but it does not appear that there was a regularly scheduled stop at Rosewood at that time. There was no history of racial tension at Rosewood, and the record indicates that prior to 1923 the black and white communities had a generally amiable relationship. On Monday, January 1, 1923, in Sumner, Florida, Mrs. Frances Taylor, a twenty-two year old white housewife, alleged that a black man had entered her home and assaulted her. Mrs. Taylor, who was visibly bruised, told her neighbors that while her husband James Taylor was at work at the sawmill, an unidentified black man had assaulted and robbed her. The specific nature of the assault is not apparent from the record; however, the white community believed there had been a sexual assault, although it does not appear that Mrs. Taylor was ever examined by a physician. After repeating her allegations, Mrs. Taylor then collapsed and was taken to a neighbor's home. A contradictory account of this event circulated in the black community. According to Mrs. Sarah Carrier, a black woman from Rosewood who did laundry for Mrs. Taylor, and Mrs. Carrier's granddaughter, Philomena Goins, who accompanied Mrs. Carrier to the Taylor home on the morning of January 1, 1923, a white man had visited Mrs. Taylor that day, and left shortly before Mrs. Taylor made her allegations. The black community believed that Mrs. Taylor had a romantic relationship with this unidentified white man, that they had quarrelled, and that this white man was actually responsible for Mrs. Taylor's injuries. In response to Mrs. Taylor's allegations, a group of white men, mainly residents of Sumner or workers at the Cummer sawmill, came together to search for the perpetrator. At about this time word reached Sumner from Levy County Sheriff Robert Elias Walker that a black convict named Jesse Hunter had escaped from a work crew doing road construction near Otter Creek. Jesse Hunter became the focus of the search. Later that day, Sheriff Walker sent for bloodhounds, and the trail of the fugitive was followed from behind the Taylor house in Sumner, leading the party of men toward Rosewood. The group first came across Aaron Carrier, a black man from Rosewood who apparently was coerced into implicating Sam Carter, a forty-five year old black man who did some blacksmith work. Sheriff Walker intervened during the interrogation of Aaron Carrier and apparently sent him to the jail in Bronson for safekeeping. The dogs followed the trail to Sam Carter's house, and the search party became convinced that Sam Carter had placed the fugitive in his wagon and assisted the fugitive in an escape. The men seized Sam Carter and strung him up over a tree limb in an effort to make Carter reveal the place where he had taken the fugitive. The role of the law enforcement officers in the search is unclear. The record indicates that Sheriff Walker was informed and probably sent for the bloodhounds from Ft. White. There is also testimony that the deputy sheriff assigned to western Levy County, Clarence Williams, who also served as a quarterboss at the Cummer sawmill, was involved in searching for the fugitive; however, it does not appear that either the sheriff or the deputy were actually members of the search party that seized Sam Carter. Of particular interest in this regard is the testimony of Ernest Parham, who at that time was a nineteen year old resident of Sumner, working at the general store. Mr. Parham testified that after the news of Mrs. Taylor's assault on January 1, 1923 spread, tension was very high in Sumner. At the general store where he worked, they sold so much ammunition that the store's owner decided to hide his supplies and tell customers that they were sold out. Later that evening, Mr. Parham closed the store and noticed that deputy sheriff Williams, who had walked to Rosewood, had left his car parked outside. Mr. Parham drove the Williams' car by a back road from Sumner to Rosewood and located the deputy near Rosewood. At that time noise from a crowd could be heard from down the road. Mr. Parham left the deputy and walked down to where the crowd was gathered, and observed that a group of white men, many of whom he knew, had strung Sam Carter up on a tree limb in an attempt to force him to reveal information about the fugitive. Mr. Parham intervened in the situation, and the crowd of men let Carter down. Carter then took them to a place down the road where he said he let the fugitive off; however, when the dogs failed to pick up the scent, one of the men in the crowd shot and killed Sam Carter. The crowd then dispersed, and Mr. Parham returned to Sumner. The body of Sam Carter was left on the road that night and apparently law enforcement officials did not discover the body until the following morning of Tuesday, January 2, 1923. Later that same day a coroner's jury inquest verdict signed by L.L. Johns as Justice of the Peace determined: "We the Jury after the examination of the said Sam Carter who being found lying Dead, find that the said Sam Carter came to his Death by being shot by Unknown Party so say we all." It does not appear that any further criminal investigation was conducted into the circumstances of the death of Sam Carter. The search for Mrs. Taylor's assailant continued. On Thursday, January 4, 1923, word reached Sumner that the man they sought was being protected by Sylvester Carrier in Rosewood. A group of white men went to the Carrier home that evening. Minnie Lee Langley and Arnett Goins, claimants in this case, were children present at the Carrier home the night of January 4, 1923, and testified to the events of that evening. The children had been told that trouble was expected and they were gathered together with other relatives at the Carrier home for their protection. They were taken to an upstairs bedroom. A group of white men approached the house and called for Sarah Carrier to come out. She did not respond. The white men then came to the porch. The white men shot and killed a dog tied in front of the house. According to the testimony, one of the white men, C.P. "Poly" Wilkerson, a former quarterboss from Sumner, kicked in the door, and was immediately shot and killed by Sylvester Carrier. A second white man Henry Andrews tried to enter the house and was also shot and killed by Sylvester Carrier. The remaining white men retreated, and gunfire was exchanged. During the ensuing gunfire Sarah Carrier was shot and killed. The white men apparently ran out of ammunition, and during the respite the children were taken out of the house by older relatives, and escaped into the woods of Gulf Hammock. It does not appear that any law enforcement officials were among the group at the Carrier home on the night of January 4, 1923. Ernest Parham testified that deputy Williams was at the hotel in Sumner that evening. Mr. Parham specifically remembered that deputy Williams was discussing the ongoing events and stated that "All hell's breaking out in Rosewood." There is nothing in the record to indicate the whereabouts of Sheriff Walker on that night. In the morning of January 5, 1923 the bodies of Poly Wilkerson, Henry Andrews, Sarah Carrier, and another black man, reported to be Sylvester Carrier were found at the house. There is some dispute as to whether Sylvester Carrier was actually killed at Rosewood. His family believes that he escaped and members received Christmas greetings from him for many years after the shootings at Rosewood. After the killing of Poly Wilkerson and Henry Andrews, the violence escalated. Groups of white men from the surrounding areas, and some reportedly from other states, came to Rosewood. During the following days every black residence was burned. The black community fled to the woods. Two more deaths of residents of Rosewood were reported. Lexie Gordon, a woman of mixed color, was sick with typhoid fever and unable to leave Rosewood. When her home was set on fire she went out the back door and was shot and killed. James Carrier, the grandfather of Minnie Lee Langley, was reported to have been forced to dig his own grave and was then shot and killed. Another black man, Mingo Williams, was reportedly shot while chopping down a tree twenty miles away by a group of the white men going to Rosewood. Many of the white residents of the area came to the assistance of the black community. John Wright, the white owner of the general store in Rosewood, hid some of the children at his house, and arranged for a railroad car to pick up the women and children who had escaped into Gulf Hammock. Margaret Cannon testified that her father, Morris Cannon, a deputy sheriff in Levy County at the time, went into the woods and found the black woman and children and brought them to the train. They were taken to Gainesville. The black residents of Rosewood did not return. Several years later the Cummer sawmill in Sumner burned. The company opened a new mill in Lacoochee, Florida, in Pasco County, and many of the Rosewood families moved to that area. Others dispersed to Jacksonville and Miami, and a few others moved out of state. Some of the property of the Rosewood residents apparently was lost to taxes, but there are a few records that indicate some property was later sold. At this time it is difficult to determine the role of law enforcement officers, and other local and state officials, regarding their conduct during the Rosewood violence. Media accounts state that the Governor, Cary Hardee, was aware of the events, but had gone hunting on the afternoon of January 4, 1923. It also appears that Sheriff Walker had informed the Governor that there was no need to call in National Guard troops. Although the record indicates that the National Guard had been mobilized in preceding years to keep the peace during civil disturbances, the Guard was not called to Rosewood. It further appears that the Sheriff of Alachua County organized a posse to come to Levy County to assist in keeping order, but the role of the Alachua Sheriff in these events is not clear from the record. Sheriff Walker resigned July 8, 1924 after the Rosewood incident, and was replaced by L.L. Johns, the former Justice of the Peace, who signed the coroner's verdict regarding the death of Sam Carter. On January 29, 1923 the Governor ordered that a special grand jury investigate the violence at Rosewood. The grand jury was presided over by Judge A.V. Long of the Eighth Judicial Circuit. George DeCottes, the state attorney for the Seventh Circuit in Deland was appointed as prosecutor. On February 12, 1923 the grand jury convened in Bronson. There are no records of the grand jury. The newspaper accounts state that thirteen witnesses testified on February 13, 1923, and more witnesses were scheduled for the following day. Examination of witnesses ended on February 14, 1923, and on February 16, 1923 the grand jury stated that they were unable to find any evidence upon which to base indictments. No charges were ever brought by the State of Florida against any person for the assault on Frances Taylor, for the killing of Sam Carter, for the deaths occurring at the Carrier home on the night of January 4, 1923, for the deaths of Lexie Gordon, James Carrier, or Mingo Williams, or for any acts of arson and theft which occurred at Rosewood, Florida. [Text deleted] As AMENDED, I recommend HB 591 be reported FAVORABLY. Respectfully submitted, Richard Hixson Special Master