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movie reviewmovie reviewmovie reviewvideo review out of 4 Movie Review: Rosewood

Starring: Ving Rhames, Jon Voight
Director: John Singleton
Rated: R
RunTime: 135 Minutes
Release Date: February 1997
Genres: Action, Drama

*Also starring: Don Cheadle, Bruce McGill, Loren Dean, Esther Rolle, Elise Neal, Catherine Kellner, Michael Rooker

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Review by Steve Rhodes
3½ stars out of 4

There is a scene in ROSEWOOD that captures the film's essence. One dark night, Mr. Mann is hiding in the lush green Florida brush. He stares in horror at the lynching in front of him. Not content with mere lynching, the perpetrators light up the sky and Mr. Mann's face with their shotgun blasts. They are celebrating their triumphs and mutilating the body. Mr. Mann's facial expressions alone say more than the entirety of many lesser movies.

BOYZ N THE HOOD director John Singleton brings a true story to life with such immediacy that it grabs your heart and your mind. I think of him as a talky, action director, but the brilliance of ROSEWOOD happens in the silence.

The casting of the film is perfect. Ving Rhames, in the lead role of Mr. Mann, delivers a performance worthy of Oscar consideration. His Mr. Mann is an heroic figure of almost mythic proportions, and yet he is both quite vulnerable and totally believable. Mr. Mann reminds me of a statuesque and powerful hero from a Wagnerian opera. Lohengrin comes to mind.

The incident dramatized in ROSEWOOD started on New Year's Eve in 1922. As the picture opens, a mysterious but powerful looking stranger (Mr. Mann) comes to a fork in the road. He has to choose between two small Florida towns. One sign points to the almost all black hamlet of Rosewood, where the land and houses are owned by the blacks. The other sign points to Sumner, where the whites live and many of the blacks work. He chooses Rosewood.

The only white resident of Rosewood is John Wright (Jon Voight), who owns the general store. Voight gives a moving performance as someone caught in the middle. The anguish on his face and, again, his silent moments are almost as strong as those of Rhames. Wright and his family are also the only sympathetic white people in the story. Even the names of the two leads, which in the movie sound like "Mr. Man" and "Mr. Right", have a force of their own.

(The whole Rosewood tragedy came to light in 1993 with sworn depositions from the residents of the time. More documentation on the event can be found on the Web. I will assume that the film is accurate, but I know most filmmakers take varying degrees of license with purportedly true stories. Nevertheless, based on what I have read, I believe most of it is true.)

I am inclined to keep the facts of the incident to a minimum so that you can be as affected and moved by the film as was I. Suffice it to say that people are lynched and murdered. Overall the feeling left with this critic is that I had just seen a small version of an American Krystalnacht. Unlike the German Krystalnacht, this one had been covered up for years. I don't believe this was due to any conspiracy. Rather I attribute this lack of publicity on the Rosewood incident to the reticence of the people at the time to admit to what had happened, the whites for fear of prosecution and the blacks for fear of reprisal.

Gregory Poirier's richly textured script is incredible. It manages to populate the film with as many people as a Tolstoy novel and still develop them enough so that you know and care about a myriad of characters. His script engulfs the audience in a wide range of emotions from fear to anger to pity. I will never forget the father teaching his young son the proper way to make a rope for lynching.

An easy mistake to make would have been for Singleton to craft an ultra-violent diatribe against racism, thus making a statement and little more. Instead he created a beautiful film that takes the time to introduce us to the black families and culture of that era. Another result of the film then has to be respect and appreciation for the good aspects of a period in black history rarely seen in the cinema. The residents of Rosewood formed a tightly knit community that owned their own land and generally were model citizens.

If there is a single part of the picture that stands out more than any other, it has to be Johnny E. Jensen's cinematography. Using a palette of warm browns and oranges he magnifies the story's hope and misery. Best are the scenes in which figures are backlit, but all of the images of Mr. Mann are worth mounting and framing.

When I tell you that STAR WARS composer John Williams did the score, what do you think it sounds like? Well, you are wrong. It is more intimate than overpowering and quite delicate.

The supporting cast is so talented that I have trouble deciding whom to mention. Let me just say that it includes: Don Cheadle, Loren Dean, Catherine Kellner, Bruce McGill, Elise Neal, Esther Rolle, and Michael Rooker.

After many surprises, the show finally ends on a hopeful note. I left feeling privileged to have seen this film. Mr. Mann and the residents of Rosewood are people I will forever respect. And the horrors inflicted upon them are something I will not forget.

ROSEWOOD runs too long at 2:19. Trimming it some would have made the film more focused and effective. ROSEWOOD is rated R for violence and sex. There are some pretty intensely violent scenes, but none are sensationalized. The show is important so it is my fond hope that most parents will take their teenagers to see it. There not that many graphic scenes -- just tell them to shut their eyes if they need to. I strongly recommend the picture to you and give it *** 1/2.

Copyright 1997 Steve Rhodes

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