Rosewood runs hot and cold. There are moments of insight and inspiration, and there are segments that don’t seem to fit with the rest of the film.
The Ox-Bow Incident, 1943, William Wellman, with Henry Fonda and a young Harry Morgan of the TV show M*A*S*H (going by Henry Morgan), about a posse-turned-lynch mob.
John Singleton got off to a great start. Boyz N the Hood, his feature debut, was universally hailed as one of the best films of 1991. It was a little rough in places, but the emotional impact (and the fact that it was his debut) overshadowed the ragged edges. Since then Singleton has been criticized for overdramatizing — the emotion he wants to convey is greater than what actually gets conveyed in his movies. When Rosewood fails, this is why. Not so much because the scenes are emotionless, but because the characters and situations try so unceasingly to evoke a deep response, even when it’s not warranted.
Rosewood tells the story of a little-known event — the incident only came to light 15 years ago — that happened in 1923 in Rosewood, a black-owned town in Florida. As the movie tells it, Fanny (Catherine Kellner) is a married white woman who’s having an affair. Her lover beats her after one of their sexual encounters. Rather than tell her husband the truth about the marks on her body, she leaves the house that afternoon, crying and screaming. She claims she’s just been beaten by a black man. The white men of the town eventually form a mob and attack the residents of Rosewood, looking for the alleged attacker.
The movie is most effective on an emotional level. After the movie’s setup, the pace picks up noticeably. The slow steady “progress” of the mob starts to wear down our ability to distance ourselves from the movie. As the movie progresses, we see that the men in the mob are not two-dimensional villains; they are human beings. They use the human gifts of reason and intelligence but to a sick and hateful purpose. There is an image that squeezed my heart and made me ashamed to be human. Duke (Bruce McGill), the grizzled old mob leader, stands silhouetted from the light of a burning black house, showing his 11-year old son how to tie a noose.
Singleton’s cinematographer, Johnny E. Jensen, uses the wide screen to good effect. He’s got a good eye for composition, especially in the opening shots, but also throughout the movie. The editor, Bruce Cannon, also plies his trade well: events in the black and white towns are intercut at meaningful junctures. For example Aunt Sarah (played by Esther Rolle) remarks about scrubbing the cypress out of the floorboards, then the film cuts to the white-owned lumber mill (an interesting comment on the type and prestige of jobs available to each race). A scene of violence ends with a black family’s house going up in flames. The next shot shows Fanny. The juxtaposition of these shots points an accusing finger at Fanny. (On a side note, the movie blames Fannie too much for what happened. The mob did all the killing and they didn’t take much convincing. Fannie might have stopped the violence had she spoken up, but after a certain point, no logic, fact, or statement could have stopped the frenzy of the men in the mob.)
Rosewood works pretty well as a melodrama. That’s not a put-down; there is nothing wrong with melodrama as long as it is handled right. Singleton is getting better, but there are still times when he overextends. Nothing can ruin melodrama faster than a scene that goes too far or becomes too obvious. If Singleton keeps improving, though, we can look forward to some very moving films.