Bil’s rating (out of 5): BBB
USA, 1997. Warner Bros., Peters Entertainment, New Deal Productions. Screenplay by Gregory Poirier. Cinematography by Johnny E. Jensen. Produced by Jon Peters. Music by John Williams. Production Design by Paul Sylbert. Costume Design by Ruth E. Carter. Film Editing by Bruce Cannon.
John Singleton creates an epic drama based on a true story that occurred in 1920s Florida. The town of Rosewood is affluent and peaceful, its citizens all African-Americans except for the wealthy general store owner (Jon Voight). Next to it is the less pristine, mostly white town of Sumter where Rosewood resident Esther Rolle does housekeeping work for a woman (Catherine Kellner) who spends her afternoons enjoying the company of other men while her husband (Loren Dean) is at work. After an afternoon tryst with a lover (played in a cameo by Robert Patrick) who beats her up and leaves bruises all over her body, Kellner lies and tells the town that a black man broke into her house and attacked her in order to avoid her husband finding out what she’s up to. It’s not long before her lie has spread across town and lights a fire in the resentful hearts of a town full of people who resent their black neighbours and have been looking for the first excuse to do something about it; in very short succession, bodies begin to pile up and an entire town is razed to the ground. Ving Rhames stars as a Civil war veteran who had come to Rosewood looking for a new home but quickly leaves when he smells trouble, knowing that an outsider will make the perfect target for those looking for a scapegoat. Singleton mounts a handsome, impressive production that liberally combines historically researched recreations of the Rosewood massacre with more apocryphal tales that contribute to a more entertaining film (Rhames’ character, most especially, is based on unreliable eyewitness accounts). In doing so he rather muddies the possibility of a truly admirable epic considering that it tells so devastating a true story while also indulging in Indiana Jones-style theatrics, Rhames riding in to save the day is a welcome relief but never quite rings true. It’s far too long and features an inconsistent cast, Rolle is as superb as Kellner is terrible, but it has moments of great power that last far longer than any of its flaws and even at its most indulgent tells its tale with a great deal of intelligence. Lest he be accused of using a character as a scapegoat himself, Singleton ensures, in the film’s most terrifying revelation, that we see what happens when the accusing woman’s lie is exposed, revealing that there are bigger and deeper reasons why this was a tragedy that was going to happen no matter what. For all its flaws, and for a film that is not at all an easy watch, it has a great deal of value for the things about it that work so well.
Berlin Film Festival: 1997