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Racial Violence at the Crossroads of West and South in Rosewood (John Singleton, 1997)

La violence raciale à la croisée de l’Ouest et du Sud dans Rosewood (John Singleton, 1997)
Claire Dutriaux

Résumés

Presque vingt ans avant la sortie en salles de Django Unchained de Quentin Tarantino, le réalisateur afro-américain John Singleton explora dans Rosewood (1997) la violente histoire raciale du Sud pendant l’ère Jim Crow, lors d’un épisode brutal qui mit face à face Noirs et Blancs. Dans ce film dont le héros est un cowboy noir, Singleton utilise une combinaison de codes westerniens et de conventions du genre du drame historique. Cet article explore les liens entre le Sud et l’Ouest à l’écran, ainsi que la manière dont le film emprunte au genre du western pour réécrire l’histoire raciale dans le Sud américain. Le réalisateur utilise ce phénomène d’hybridation générique pour montrer la persistance d’une Frontière raciale à l’écran. Le réalisateur modifia les témoignages originels sur le massacre de Rosewood de 1923 pour offrir une résolution « westernienne » aux conflits historiques.

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  • 1 Source: <https://the-numbers.com>, accessed on July 5, 2018.
  • 2 “Documented history of the incident which occurred at Rosewood, Florida, in January 19 (...)

1Rosewood, directed in 1997 by African American filmmaker John Singleton, then-known for his immensely successful Boyz N The Hood (1991), was praised by reviewers but did not garner much success at the box office, grossing roughly $13 million total domestically and internationally, for a budget of around $30 million.1 The film is based on the Rosewood bloodshed of 1923, in which an entire African American town in North Florida was destroyed and burnt to the ground by some of the Whites from the neighboring town, Sumner. The white residents of Sumner acted upon the rape accusations of a white woman, Fannie Taylor, against a black man. Whether those allegations were actually true is still not known today: according to the research conducted in 1993 by Florida historians, the man’s skin color, as well as Fannie Taylor’s attack, could never be confirmed.2 John Singleton’s motion picture is a period piece that explores the racial dynamics of the 1920s, which has until today been seldom represented in Hollywood cinema. The film was shot on location, even though very little remains of the town, except for one house.

2Fannie Taylor’s claim that she was assaulted by a black man – to account for the visible blue marks caused by her secret white lover’s blows – provides the turning-point in Singleton’s film. The inhabitants of Sumner react to her accusation by forming a vigilante posse whom the sheriff is unable (but not entirely unwilling) to stop. The film depicts increasing violence after the mob first attacks Aaron Carrier, a black man who helped Fannie Taylor’s white lover escape because of their masonic connections. Sheriff Walker places Aaron Carrier in jail, but only after he confesses to the mob that he was helped by Sam Carter. The posse hunts down the latter and brutally lynches him. Because the white vigilantes from Sumner resent Rosewood’s inhabitants, and particularly Sylvester Carrier (Don Cheadle), whom they jealously view as condescending and rebellious, they attack the Carrier house. When Sylvester protects his family by firing gun shots and killing two white men, the posse revengefully set the town ablaze and lynch every black person they track down. Some children and women escape into the swamps and eventually flee by boarding a train bound for Gainesville with the help of John Wright (Jon Voight), the white storeowner, and Mann (Ving Rhames), a providential stranger who arrived in town a few days before the massacre. Singleton modifies the initial accounts of the massacre in several essential ways: not only does he add the character of Mann and emphasize the role of John Wright in the escape of the women and children, but he also shows unambiguously that Fannie Taylor’s blatant lies are used as an excuse for lynching.

  • 3 Film critic Richard Schickel faulted the character of Mann as “the mysterious stranger of a (...)
  • 4 Thomas Leitch demonstrated in the last chapter of Film Adaptation and Its Discontents (...)

3Rosewood was heavily criticized upon release by some film reviewers who disapproved of its Western formula, which, they argued, distorted the historical truth of a drama set in the South.3 Some reviewers contended that this lapse into Hollywood entertainment undermined the historical value of a forgotten but nevertheless important event. The debate centered mostly on its Western-style hero (Mann) and on how John Singleton extended the Rosewood story into a classic western by drawing inspiration from George Stevens’ Shane (1953). Yet the film warns the audience about its ambivalence from the start, with the oxymoronic claim “based on a true story.”4

4Other reviewers embraced the film, which tells an obscure part of African American history and allows, via Mann, African American audiences to regain agency over the past. African American critic Stanley Crouch thus wrote in the New York Times in 2001:

  • 5 Stanley Crouch, “Film; A Lost Generation and Its Exploiters,” New York Times, August 26, 200 (...)

Rosewood, the story of rednecks destroying a black community in Florida 80 years ago, was a major American film. On an epic scale, it moved the Afro-American experience into the kinds of mythic arenas in which John Ford cast his work, where the real and the mythological stood together, where authenticity and poetic exaggeration reinforced each other, where real characters and archetypes spoke to one another and worked together. Never in the history of American film had Southern racist hysteria been shown so clearly. Color, class and sex were woven together on a level that Faulkner would have appreciated.5

5Crouch noted that the Western and the Southern fruitfully blended in Rosewood, with references to John Ford, the director of the many classic epic Westerns set in Monument Valley, and William Faulkner, the famed Southern writer. Rosewood offers a striking retelling of the African American experience through making the West meet the South by blending the Western and the Southern genres. African American journalist E. R. Shipp also wrote a piece in the New York Times commending the film for its ability to help African Americans take “control of old demons” by bringing dark episodes of their history into the light, especially at a time when church burnings in the United States were again becoming legion:

  • 6 E. R. Shipp, “Taking Control of Old Demons by Forcing Them Into the Light,ˮ The New-York Tim (...)

[Mr. Singleton’s] film may be stereotypical and cliché-ridden to audiences accustomed to seeing their stories rendered on screen, but many black moviegoers are entranced by this tale that has its roots in a past about which they know very little. Some critics of ''Rosewood'' take issue with Mr. Singleton's embellishment of the facts and the creation of Mann, the reluctant hero. Indeed, a reviewer for The Houston Chronicle, typical among the critics, regretted that the movie ''assumes a lot and then makes up a lot more.'' One response is this: When a people's history has been deliberately obliterated, how can anyone question attempts to piece together that history from the shards that remain, using artistic license to fill the gaps?6

  • 7 Armond White, “Scary Movie is Funny, Shaft is Scary,ˮ The New York Press, July 19, 200 (...)

6In counterpoint to all the praise from African American critics, Armond White, a writer of often scathing reviews of Hollywood movies, thought Rosewood a failure and berated Singleton for using generic Hollywood conventions to picture tragedy: “He foolishly sought to soothe historical tragedy with the cartoon emollient of genre.”7

7Because the classic Western often leaves no space for African Americans, making it essentially a white story of origins for the American nation with its reliance on the mythology of the Frontier as a justification for the conquest of a territory seen as empty, the fact that Singleton tells a Southern story in the form of a Western raises a number of questions. The classic white Southerns – the “plantation films” such as David Wark Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation (1915), David O. Selznick’s Gone with the Wind (1939) or Raoul Walsh’s Band of Angels (1957) –, offer highly stereotypical roles for African American actors. Films set in the South address the issues of slavery and segregation, but never fully show the violence endured by African Americans, and hardly ever deal with lynching.

  • 8 Jim Kitses, Horizons West, Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1970.

8In Horizons West, Jim Kitses identifies a set of binary oppositions as characteristic of the Western (East/West, civilization/the wilderness, community/individualism), all of which are displaced in a Southern setting in Rosewood.8 Singleton offers a critical vision of the lynching practice in the Jim Crow South through blending the well-established genre of the Western with the darkest elements of Southern culture. The result is an alternative mythology in which African Americans reinterpret history through the classic frame of Hollywood genres. Hollywood history is re-told and shows the other side of the plantation stories, expressing in a crude light the plight of African Americans in the South. Rosewood intends to remind the viewers both of the presence of Blacks on the Western Frontier, a fact which is almost always ignored by Hollywood Westerns, and of the horrendous violence Southern Blacks faced at the hands of Whites in the Jim Crow era and beyond. This article will explore how John Singleton borrows from the Western genre to rewrite racial history in the American South, allowing for the creation of a racial Frontier which questions the dominance of white Americans both in American History and in films. This is, however, mitigated by the emphasis put on the character of John Wright, which limits the scope of Rosewood as an African American story of resistance.

Rewriting and reframing the violent American South

  • 9 John Singleton, commentary on the DVD of Rosewood (released in 1997).
  • 10 See Matthew H. Bernstein. “A ‘Professional Southerner’ in the Hollywood Studio Sys (...)

9Rosewood is set in the South of the United States and includes semantic and syntactic elements that are often present in the cinematic South, but its hero is definitely a Western-type hero. This generic hybridity owes in part to the model used for the film: John Singleton explains that The Ox-Bow Incident (William Wellman, 1943), a film that deals with the lynching of three innocent men by a vigilante posse in the arid West, provided inspiration.9 Wellman’s Southern imagery is tied to the influence of its Southern scriptwriter, Lamar Trotti, who often included Southern themes in his scripts, for instance in Belle Starr (Irving Cummings, 1941), and would act as a “professional Southerner” in Hollywood by explaining the South to Hollywood and vice versa.10 The most “Southern” element of all in The Ox-Bow Incident was the lynching of the three white men in the West of the 1880s. The character of Sparks, the African American preacher, links the lynching of the three men to the lynching of African Americans in the South in the Jim Crow era.

10Rosewood goes further than The Ox-Bow Incident when addressing the issue of lynching in the 1920s Southern United States. Rosewood showcases semantic elements that instantly recall the South: savage rednecks, a Ku Klux Klan parade, a Southern baptism in the river, and swamps. The film foregrounds the racial tensions that pervade Sumner; all the encounters between Blacks and Whites work as commentaries on the racial tensions that existed in the South in 1923 in all areas of life. The auction sequence is a particularly good example: Sylvester Carrier and Mann may stand at the back, however Mann proves his rebellious streak by bidding on a plot of land against John Wright. Of course, the land auction functions as a metaphor for the 19th century slave auctions. The sequence clearly shows the discriminatory abuse that African Americans faced in the 1920s, which are not far removed from those of the slave auctions, for the mostly White attendees do not expect Mann (a black man) to have any money of his own and place a bid. Other clear examples of racial strife are the comments made by Aunt Sarah (Esther Rolle) that Blacks’ and Whites’ knowing their respective places is what keeps their community alive: “Time’s ain’t never changed for no crackers, boy. Don’t you forget they burned a colored man over in Wylly last summer for winking at a white woman.”

  • 11 See Allison Graham’s Framing the South: Hollywood, Television and Race during the (...)

11Rosewood creates a Southern atmosphere by including stereotypical characters. The African American characters express their disdain of the poor white men whom they call “white trash” or “crackers” in Rosewood. Duke (Bruce McGill) embodies the archetypal redneck, the most racist character in films about the South:11 he shoots black people to teach his son how to “become a man” in a sequence that shows how racist violence is construed as part of white Southern identity. The construction of white masculinity in the filmic Southerner is concomitant with the emasculation of the black man.

12Rosewood also alludes to the Civil Rights era and the violent events that surrounded the movement in the South. The various burnings, including the church burning, are reminiscent of the church fires in Alan Parker’s Mississippi Burning (1988), released only a few years before Rosewood and still an overt filmic reference to racist brutality in the South. The idyllic plantation films provide visual intertexts with the first establishing shots of Rosewood, filmed in a yellowish hue conveying a form of nostalgia for a lost paradise. It is the same type of nostalgia one finds in Gone with the Wind, except that the nostalgia is now felt for an idyllic black community. Rosewood uses images that are very similar to the opening of Gone with the Wind, with the focus on rural landscapes and the close-up on a church bell. The New Year’s Eve dance scene further emphasizes the harmony that prevails in the black community. Nevertheless, contrary to plantation films, Rosewood’s focus is on racial strife, as it highlights the hypocrisy of a society built on the racist exploitation of the black man and woman.

  • 12 Donald Bogle, Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies and Bucks: An Interpretative History (...)
  • 13 Tampa Morning Tribune, January 8, 1923.
  • 14 Historian Anne Goodwyn Jones provides the following definition of the Southern bel (...)
  • 15 “Rape of white women signaled metaphorically white men’s fear of the loss of ability to pr (...)
  • 16 “No single film in the silent era is more important to the critical history of stereotype (...)

13At the time of the 1923 Rosewood massacre, many newspapers evoked the white Southern belief in the purity of white Southern women and how that purity needed to be upheld against the threat of the “brutal black buck.”12 For instance, the editorial of the Tampa Morning Tribune read on January 8, 1923: “The provocation, assault of a young pure white woman by one or more negroes, was great. It is a provocation which, more than any other, stirs the anger, and whets the determination to punish, in every white man who reads of it.”13 Later on, the editorial deemed the Rosewood massacre was “another proof to the lawless negro that he cannot with impunity, or even with hope of escape, lay his hands on a white woman, for white men will shed their blood to get him.” Rosewood foregrounds the hypocrisy of this Southern belief in the purity of the white woman through the character of Fannie Taylor, who is neither an innocent woman, nor a pure Southern Belle14 – in opposition to the character of Scrappie (Elise Neal), Mann’s African American fiancée, whose purity, innocence and elegance are unparalleled. Fannie Taylor is shown as a cheater and this character trait is underlined by a short sequence in which her face is reflected in her wedding picture after she has sexual intercourse with her lover. Lying to protect herself from the wrath of her husband and the judgment of her peers, Fannie Taylor could not be further removed from the ideal of the “pure Southern Belle” cherished by white Southern society in the 1920s. American historian Grace Elizabeth Hale has demonstrated in her analysis of Southern narratives before 1940 that white Southern supremacy rested upon the protection of white women against the alleged threat of sexualized Blacks.15 She shares none of Flora Cameron’s innocence in The Birth of a Nation and her attacker is no Gus-like character but a white man.16

14Furthermore, the film shows that the myth of the “brutal black buck” is based on Southern hysteria and exaggeration in a telling sequence where voice-overs elaborate on “violent Blacks” that need to be disciplined, while the film shows us an empty, inoffensive Rosewood magnified by composer John William’s gospel-like music and the emptiness of the church on a Sunday. The fade to the scene of the Southern baptism further emphasizes the direct link between the plight of the African Americans who have just been massacred and Southern white society’s racist view that “niggers need to be put in their place.” The baptism, which suggests purity and innocence, is revealed as yet another lie when the men attending the baptism take out their Klan robes to literally and brutally hunt down the remaining African Americans of the area. Finally, the sex scene between Jewel (Akosua Busia), who works at Joe Wright’s store, and John Wright, her white employer, recalls the systematic exploitation of black women and the sexual threat black women face.

15The real justification for the lynchings is to be found in the resentment of the poor Whites of Sumner against the wealthier inhabitants of Rosewood. Ida B. Wells examined the many accounts of alleged white victims of black rapists in her pamphlet Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in All Its Phases (1892), and concluded that Southerners justified the lynchings of black men with rape to hide the real reasons for lynching – to keep African Americans second-class citizens and suppress Black progress. The extended scenes drawing parallels between Rosewood and Sumner, which allows for a comparison of their respective economic status, serve to remind the viewer of the real justifications for the Rosewood massacre. Jonathan Markovitz remarks in Legacies of Lynching that the film frequently hints at these economic justifications:

  • 17 Jonathan Markovitz, Legacies of Lynching: Racial Violence and Memory, Minneapolis and Lond (...)

The motivations for the violence become clearer the following day as members of the lynch mob are sitting around discussing their plans and the possibility that Sylvester Carrier is somehow involved. One of the men says, “That nigger, he hates us white folks,” and another notes with outrage, “You know he’s got a piano? A nigger with a goddamn piano…” […] [A]s the film progresses it becomes clearer that the charge of rape is really just an excuse for the mob’s members to vent the frustration and resentment that they feel because of the economic disparity between the two towns.17

  • 18 “The Race Question,” Entertainment Weekly, March 7, 1997.
  • 19 Micheaux’s Within Our Gates in particular was meant as a direct response to D. W. (...)
  • 20 Ed Guerrero, “Review of RosewoodCineaste, Issue 23, Winter 1997, 46.

16Rosewood is a revisionist film about the South, as it openly takes the point of view of African Americans, rewriting what is perhaps the most emblematic film about the South, D. W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation. In an interview to Entertainment Weekly, John Singleton stated after the release of his film: “If D. W. Griffith knew I was making movies, he’d be rolling in his grave. I want to keep him rolling.”18 In this respect, Rosewood is not that far removed from Oscar Micheaux’s films which sought to provide a way for African Americans to voice their experience,19 and it also resonates with films of the Blaxploitation era, except that Rosewood is a Hollywood product, not an independent film nor exploitation cinema. However, because this Southern story is viewed through the prism of the Western canon, Rosewood may be deemed a revisionist Western as well, as underlined by Ed Guerrero: “because the hero is black; the cultural focus is on African Americans, the scene is set in the South of the 1920s; and the issue is lynching and mass murder.”20

Revising the Western genre and creating a racial Frontier

17It could be argued that Rosewood creates a new mythology by showing African Americans regain agency over a dark episode of American history in what amounts to a revisionist Western. In classic Hollywood Westerns, Native Americans are often the minority under attack, just like the Blacks of Rosewood. One of the last sequences depicts the rednecks chasing after the train like Indians attacking the stagecoach in Stagecoach (1939). In the DVD commentary on the film, Singleton underlines the racist biases of American cinema by drawing a parallel between African Americans and Native Americans whose murders are incorporated into plotlines: “Watching American films, you would have thought that Indians deserved to get killed.” The church scene in which the inhabitants of Rosewood gather to discuss what they should do after Fannie Taylor’s lie is quite a clear rewriting of a classic scene of white pioneers on the Western Frontier gathering to discuss what to do with the threatening Indians. This role reversal allows Rosewood to stand out as a revisionist Western, as the oppressed organize resistance against their oppressors. In this respect, the black/white binary paradigm of race is unsettled by the Western which offers paths of actions unthought of in the Southern.

  • 21 W.E.B. Dubois, The Souls of Black Folk, Oxford and New York: Oxford University Pre (...)

18In the process, the syntax of the Western itself seems to be subverted by the introduction of the Southern motif of a “racial Frontier.” In a country where racial issues are essentially a matter of black and white, as historian W.E.B. DuBois highlighted with his concept of the “color line,”21 Rosewood offers an ironical comment on the lack of progress on the Frontier for African Americans. However, it is also a place where African Americans can devise strategies of resistance against violence and destruction. With the character of Mann, resistance and strength are placed at the core of the film, allowing the Rosewood community to create a new myth for itself, a new racial Frontier. Moreover, Mann’s and Wright’s acknowledgement of one another’s worth after they have successfully helped the women and children escape on the train points towards a possible erasure of DuBois’s “color line.” The train on which Rosewood’s inhabitants escape works as the space of the new racial Frontier, for a new life is made possible for African Americans boarding the train, which is evidenced by Mann and Scrappie’s kiss. The train is a classic trope of the West, which functions as a symbol of civilization penetrating the wilderness and furthering expansion to the west, and serves in Rosewood as a means to escape a civilization of gun-toting Whites that has become twisted by its fear of the black man. The train may also be seen as a veiled reference to the Underground Railroad, and the network of people and routes that slaves used to travel north in order to break free.

  • 22 Steven N. Lipkin, Real Emotional Logic, Carbondale and Edwardsville: University of (...)

19Rosewood does not eliminate the binary oppositions of civilization versus the wilderness, and social order versus anarchy, of the classic Western, but rather reframes them, as Rosewood and its African Americans definitely behave in a more civilized manner than the crazed people of Sumner whose houses are shown as decayed and weather-beaten compared to the painted Rosewood houses. The entire town of Rosewood appears as a peaceful haven for a few affluent African American families, whereas Sumner is shown as predominantly white and significantly poorer. The differences between the two communities – differences that show that racial tensions are still running high – are leisurely highlighted in lengthy introductory sequences which foreground the contrast between the neat houses occupied by the Blacks of Rosewood and their access to high culture, as shown by the sequences showcasing Sylvester Carrier playing the piano, in contrast to the dusty shacks inhabited by the mostly ignorant Whites of Sumner. This is probably why Steven N. Lipkin notes in Real Emotional Logic that Rosewood presumes that the viewer is able to decipher the Western’s generic conventions in the film: “It suggests that an audience fluent in the vocabulary of the traditional film Western, potentially can read the resituation of Western conventions as they are applied [in the film].”22 As such, Steven N. Lipkin indicates that the film proposes a new “racial Frontier,” in which African Americans are shown to be part of the imaginary construction of the West and of the identity of the nation.

  • 23 Ralph Ellison, Going to the Territory, New York: Random House, 1986, 198.
  • 24 Paula J. Massood, Black City Cinema: African American Urban Experiences in Film, Philadelp (...)

20Indeed, Rosewood offers a new filmic geography of the United States by opening up the West to African Americans from the South. Ralph Ellison remarks in Going to the Territory (1986) that “in this country, where Frederick Jackson Turner’s theory of the Frontier has been so influential in shaping our conception of American history, very little attention has been given to the role played by geography in shaping the fate of Afro-Americans.”23 Ellison’s work also discusses his various geographical experiences and how geography influenced his writing, from the constraints of the South to the freedoms offered by the West and the North. Rosewood seems to indicate that the violent history of the South, and the brutality of Jim Crow, can be escaped by symbolically going west. Significantly, the final sequences of the film draw a parallel between the smoking ruins of Rosewood with the escape of major characters – from the women and children on the train, to Duke’s son who is headed towards an unknown destination, to Mann and Sylvester who are going to catch up with the moving train on horseback. The film does not show the train arrive at its predetermined stop, Gainesville. As the train often functions in classic Hollywood Westerns as a symbol of the Conquest of the West and the gradual settlement of the Frontier, this focus on the moving train and what it symbolizes in Rosewood points towards the possibility of creating a new African American community in an undetermined, but free West and leaving the ashes of Rosewood behind. The symbol of the train may also be connected to the Great Migration of African Americans from the rural South to the industrial North.24

21The interplay between the Western and the Southern points towards the recurring absence of African American actors in a Hollywood film genre which has traditionally focused only on the regeneration of the white man, leaving aside the African Americans that participated in the Conquest of the West. Mario Van Peebles sought to address such biased historical discourse in Posse (1993), released just four years before the release of Rosewood. Compared to Posse, the geography of Rosewood is slightly different, as the film is not about black cowboys in the West, but about a black cowboy in the decaying South. The presence of Mann as a black figure from the mythic West challenges the racial Frontier in Hollywood cinema, allowing for the creation of a black hero on screen. As Jamie Barlowe indicates, Singleton’s aim was as much to account for the despair felt by the African Americans who died in Rosewood in 1923 as to make up for the lack of black heroes in Hollywood cinema:

  • 25 Jamie Barlowe, “The ‘Not-Free’ and ‘Not-Me’ Constructions of Whiteness in Rosewood (...)

Many critics see Mann’s heroics – especially the scene in which he leaps down from his horse, and turns and faces the mob, gun drawn – as diminishing the real-life heroics of those killed in Rosewood, as well as those who survived and escaped to Gainesville. But Singleton, his scriptwriter Gregory Poirier, his cinematographer Jensen, and his carefully chosen crew of actors viewed this film as not only the re-creation of an actual historical event, but also as part of film history. Thus, the heroic loner figure who is drawn into a narrative’s central conflict inhabits that cinematic intertext. Singleton’s intertextual dialogue is with history, with the continuing fear and despair he felt in the 1990s accounts by the survivors of Rosewood, and with a film history which has fully excluded black heroes25.

Mann: regenerating African American men through violence

  • 26 John Wayne, whose real name was Marion Mitchell Morrison, was an actor, director and produ (...)

22Mann is played by Ving Rhames, an actor previously known for his role of mobster Marsellus Wallace in Pulp Fiction (Quentin Tarantino, 1994). The character was an addition to the “Rosewood story,” and a surprising one, as accounts of the Rosewood massacre all mentioned the heroic actions of a man who fought back against white violence to defend his family: Sylvester Carrier. Instead of focusing only on Carrier, Singleton turned Mann into a “black John Wayne”26 – which is what John Singleton calls him in the commentary he made on the first DVD release. The character of Mann is the main convention of the Western in Singleton’s film. The role was given to Ving Rhames after Denzel Washington had turned it down. It is obvious with these casting choices that Singleton’s aim was to look for an action-type persona. Ving Rhames was very much conscious of the image he was meant to convey at the time of filming:

  • 27 Craigh Barboza, John Singleton: Interviews, Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2009 (...)

Some of the actors who were considered for the part were going to be physically... more palatable to certain audiences than me. I mean, I’m a quote-unquote big, shaven-head nigger, where someone like a Denzel Washington is physically more acceptable to white America. You think of Ving Rhames and you think of Marcellus in Pulp Fiction […].27

23This casting choice nods in the direction of the heyday of the Blaxploitation era, with its muscular, black male heroes. In Rosewood, Mann is portrayed as the consummate, unfathomable but strong cowboy. In the scene entitled “stranger’s arrival,” the director presents him as a mysterious outsider, first by filming only the reaction of Sumner residents to his arrival, from his point of view, then later on with long shots that never fully reveal his face. When he is filmed more closely, it is from behind. Furthermore, his dark attire and hat complete the picture of a stranger who is visibly not from the area, as he is seen hesitating at the crossroads between Rosewood and Sumner. Mann is pictured as a remote yet weary figure whose wish is to settle down somewhere. The stranger’s arrival scene closely resembles that of Shane where the newcomer is also first viewed through reaction shots of the family, then through long shots, to create the same opposition between the inside (the log cabin) and the outside. From the very start, the character of Mann is situated in a long line of mythic Western archetypes whose characteristics he seems to share. His gunshots are precise and deadly, and he and his horse Booker T are one. The horse is shown to obey only his command on several occasions in the film. In the age of the automobile, Mann definitely represents a figure from a mythic past, pinpointed by another character: “Why are you riding a horse instead of driving a car?”

  • 28 Richard Slotkin, The Fatal Environment, Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1998, 22.

24Like many Western cowboys before him, and above all John Wayne in classic Fordian Westerns such as Stagecoach (1939) and Fort Apache (1948), Mann is presented in such a way as to garner immediate audience appreciation towards him, precisely because his presence as a Western archetype in a nightmarish Southern allows for moments of relief, and because he reacts to white vigilantism and racist violence. Like John Wayne in the classic Westerns, Mann is of a calm, composed demeanor. He is a man of few words, but his ethics are impeccable – he is meant to defend the innocent. The film takes pains to set him as the ultimate hero, the savior of women and children, but also explores his personality, as the film develops his relationship with Scrappie. When he unexpectedly comes back to Rosewood and saves two little children from being shot by a redneck, the camera first focuses on his gun, then cuts to his dark figure over a background of fire – the cut, effecting a metonymic link between his weapon and his persona, constructs him as the ultimate savior, an almost messianic figure. This characterization is exaggerated by the flamboyant aesthetics of the scenes that involve Mann in the second part of the movie, and by his literally unbelievable strength. In one sequence, Mann manages to escape the noose through the sheer strength of his neck and arms. Such exaggerations further help to move the film into the arena of mythology sparked by the use of the generic conventions of the Western. Richard Slotkin remarks that the distinctive features of the myth are that its language is “indirect, metaphorical and suggestive in structure” rather than logical and analytical.28

  • 29 In the summer and fall of 1919, several race riots erupted in more than thirty American ci (...)

25Yet the character is not merely the archetype of the western cowboy, for he is given more depth with a past as a World War I veteran who has been wandering since the end of the war and is looking to settle down. In one sequence he is shown sleeping fitfully in the barn, with a soundtrack composed of the sound of shell bombs and gunshots. John Wright and Mann are both characterized by their pasts as veterans and their respective ability to reach out to and understand one another. Mann embodies the black veterans that returned from the war to find themselves attacked by Whites who believed Blacks did not know their place anymore, which sparked the red summer riots of 1919.29 Therefore Singleton uses the character of Mann to reconstruct and reassert black masculinity on screen and in History. The generic conventions of the Western serve this purpose as well, creating an explicit a link between the use of violence and the assertion of manhood. Mann serves as a challenge to the notion that the “brutal black buck” is a potential attacker of white women. His moral fortitude and his initial wish not to participate in any fight after the first attacks against the Rosewood residents are offered as a contrast to the Southern whites who resort to violence as recreation. Mann’s cool composure makes him a Western hero in ironical contrast to the Whites’ taste for cruelty, which often borders on hysteria. For instance, the sequence which immediately follows the Southern baptism offers a contrast between the nightmarish motifs of the lynchings as recreation for Southerners (as often in lynching films, the act itself is presented in a carnivalesque fashion), and the comic relief provided by Mann’s Western-style resistance to the would-be lynchers who believe they were attacked by “at least fifteen niggers” in the woods. Such moments in which the conventions of the Western reframe the South depicted on screen help create an alternative mythology in Rosewood, a regeneration of the South and of African Americans through the use of the generic conventions of the western.

26In an interview given to the magazine Vibe, John Singleton commented on the empowering role model embodied by Mann in the film:

  • 30 “Movies: Rosewood,” Vibe, December 1996-January 1997, vol. 4, n° 10. 154.

It feels good to be the one in control this time around. Better me than some white-boy director who’s not gonna let the black characters fight back when they’re being raped and lynched. I’ve got brothers in this movie doing stuff they’ve never done in the history of American cinema. It’s a simple matter of taking the guns and pointing them in the opposite direction.30

27Mann and Wright point their guns to the rear of the train and are bonded by soldierly solidarity when shooting at the degenerate rednecks chasing them: “this is war, we are in the trenches,” he exclaims. The sequence highlights the process of regeneration through violence going on at this point in the film turning the emasculated black man into war hero. Tellingly, John Wright offers the military salute to Mann who responds in kind as he flees on board the train. This very act of resistance has finally earned him respect from the white man, an acknowledgement of his manhood, therefore enacting the promise of the Western. Just as in Shane, the assertion of manhood is accompanied by the motif of the father figure, a motif which is recurrent in John Singleton’s movies, since Mann makes Arnett his lieutenant to help him save the women and children hidden in the swamps.

28However, the fact that the white storeowner’s help is necessary, and that his approval of Mann’s actions is required, is problematic in a film which seeks to build a strong, self-reliant African American hero. The promotional materials of the film also spotlight the relationship between Mann and Wright, presenting them as a buddy combination. These materials misrepresent their fraught relationship in the film, a relationship which is not very significant in terms of storyline. Such misrepresentation seems to indicate that the producers of the film may have aimed for a “crossover” audience. The redemption of Whites with the character of Duke’s son, who decides to leave his father and live elsewhere because of his disgust for his father’s violent racism, may also be viewed as a way to dilute the everyday violence faced by African Americans in the Jim Crow era. The name of Mann’s horse, Booker T., is a clear reference to Booker T. Washington and his accommodationist ideal of gradual, peaceful cohabitation between Blacks and Whites, which the film seems to support in the end since Mann and Wright need to collaborate to save the women and children. Nevertheless, the film does point towards John Wright’s economic and sexual exploitation of the Rosewood community, and questions his ethics. He is shown as decidedly angry in the auction sequence when he is challenged by a black man, and his relations with Jewel are ambiguous, for it is impossible to discern whether it is a consensual or coerced sexual relationship. In spite of its limitations, perhaps partly due to a wish to succeed commercially and reach as wide an audience as possible, Rosewood powerfully indicts institutionalized racism in the 1920s and beyond.

Conclusion

29John Singleton’s Rosewood combines the codes of the Western and the Southern, two genres (if the Southern may be considered as a genre) that have traditionally left no space for African Americans. The classic Western often puts aside African Americans and focuses principally on the regeneration of the white man through his confrontation with the wilderness. In classic plantation films such as Jezebel (1938) or Gone with the Wind (1939), African American characters remain secondary to the white characters. American cinema thus fosters the perception that white men have shaped American History, from Frederic Jackson Turner’s Frontier thesis and Roosevelt’s The Winning of the West, which greatly influenced Westerns, to the myth of the Lost Cause and its on-screen representations in plantation films. Rosewood rewrites film history by combining codes from the Western and the Southern, which was seldom done before, but first and foremost by replacing African American characters at the center of the story, and focusing on an era which was hardly ever pictured directly on movie screens but frequently alluded to. John Singleton brutally represents the horrors of the Jim Crow South, with many scenes directly picturing gruesome lynchings, and explores the mainly economic reasons behind such lynchings. The Western codes shift with the introduction of Southern motifs, drawing a racial Frontier where African Americans regain agency over a horrific past. With the character of Mann as the consummate Western hero, the film extols the power of resistance against racist violence. However, the film is decidedly no escapist entertainment since it elides the aftermath of the massacre.

30Although the film points towards an erasure of the color line, with the characters of Mann and Joe Wright finally showing respect for one another at the end, and although the producers obviously tried to reach a crossover audience by promoting this relationship between Mann and Wright over the historicized account of the Rosewood massacre, the film failed to reach a wide audience. Perhaps one reason for that lack of success may be found in the horrific, genocidal violence that is represented on screen. Another reason may also be the indictment of America at large, and of its racist past and present, that are foregrounded in Rosewood. As Singleton merges the account of a massacre that occurred in the Jim Crow South with the generic conventions of the Western, often viewed as the quintessentially American genre, the Rosewood massacre no longer remains solely a Southern event but becomes an American fact and part of America’s past. Mann’s status as a WWI veteran further links racist violence to America at large, as Mann’s contribution to the nation’s integrity during the war shows his belief in the American nation. Attacking Mann and his community is an attack on America itself, and shows that racism and racist violence pervade every layer of the American nation, from the most racist Southern redneck to the storeowner who thought he was not a racist but actually is, to the sheriff who does not uphold his role as protector of the community. As a film of the 1990s, a decade which began with the Los Angeles riots after Rodney King was arrested and beaten by white police in 1992, Rosewood also points at the lack of progress for African Americans in the decade, and indicts an American nation that keeps treating part of its population as second-class citizens.

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Bibliographie

BARBOZA Craigh, John Singleton: Interviews, Jackson: University of Mississippi Press, 2009.

BARLOWE Jamie, ‘The ‘Not-Free’ and ‘Not-Me’: Constructions of Whiteness in Rosewood and Ghosts of Mississippi’, Canadian Review of American Studies, vol. 28, n° 3, 1998, 31-46.

BERNSTEIN Matthew H., “A ‘Professional Southerner’ in the Hollywood Studio System: Lamar Trotti at Work, 1925-1952,” in Deborah Barker and Kathryn McKee (eds.), American Cinema and the Southern Imaginary, Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2011, 122-150.

BERNSTEIN Matthew, Screening a Lynching: The Leo Frank Case on Film and Television, Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2009.

BOGLE Donald, Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies and Bucks: An Interpretative History of Blacks in Films, New York: Viking Press, 1973.

COLBURN David R., “Rosewood and America in the Early Twentieth Century,” Florida Historical Quarterly, Volume 76, issue 2, 1997, 175-93.

CRIPPS Thomas, Slow Fade to Black: the Negro in American Film, 1900-1942, Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1977.

CROUCH Stanley, “Film; A Lost Generation and Its Exploiters,” The New York Times, August 26, 2001.

DUBOIS, W.E.B., The Souls of Black Folk, Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2007 [1903].

ELLISON Ralph, Going to the Territory, New York: Random House, 1986.

GRAHAM Allison, Framing the South: Hollywood, Television and Race during the Civil Rights Struggle, Baltimore and London: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003.

GUERRERO Ed, “Review of RosewoodCineaste, Issue 23, Winter 1997, 45-47.

HALE Grace Elizabeth, Making Whiteness: The Culture of Segregation, 1890-1940, New York: Pantheon Books, 1998.

JONES Anne Goodwyn, “Belles and Ladies,” in Nancy Bercaw and Ted Ownby (eds.), Gender, The New Encyclopedia of Southern Culture, volume 13, Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2009, 42-49.

KITSES Jim, Horizons West, Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1970.

LEITCH Thomas, Film Adaptation and Its Discontents: From Gone with the Wind to The Passion of Christ, Johns Hopkins University Press, 2009.

LIPKIN Steven N., Real Emotional Logic: Film and Television Docudrama as Persuasive Practice, Carbondale and Edwardsville: University of Southern Illinois Press, 2002.

MASSOOD Paula J., Black City Cinema: African American Urban Experiences in Film, Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2003.

RICHARDSON Riché, Black masculinity and the U.S. South: from Uncle Tom to Gangsta, Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2007.

SLOTKIN Richard, The Fatal Environment: the Myth of the Frontier in the Age of Industrialization, 1800-1890, Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1998.

SVETKEY Benjamin, ‘The Race Question’, Entertainment Weekly, Issue 369, March 7th, 1997.

“Movies: Rosewood,” Vibe, vol. 4, n° 10, December 1996-January 1997.

WHITE Armond, “Scary Movie is Funny, Shaft is Scary,” The New York Press, July 19, 2000.

WIEGMAN Robyn, “Race, ethnicity, and film,” in John Hill & Pamela Church Gibson (eds.), The Oxford Guide to Film Studies, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998, 158-168.

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Notes

1 Source: <https://the-numbers.com>, accessed on July 5, 2018.

2 “Documented history of the incident which occurred at Rosewood, Florida, in January 1923,” submitted to the Florida Board of Regents, Dec. 22, 1923. The report can be consulted on the following website: <http://www.displaysforschools.com/rosewood.html>, accessed on July 5, 2018.

3 Film critic Richard Schickel faulted the character of Mann as “the mysterious stranger of a thousand westernsˮ in his review for Time, February 21, 1997.

4 Thomas Leitch demonstrated in the last chapter of Film Adaptation and Its Discontents the self-contained ambivalence of this authenticating claim with the juxtaposition of the words “true” and “story,” which refer simultaneously to the existence and the non-existence of a transcendental master text preceding the creation of the film.

5 Stanley Crouch, “Film; A Lost Generation and Its Exploiters,” New York Times, August 26, 2001.

6 E. R. Shipp, “Taking Control of Old Demons by Forcing Them Into the Light,ˮ The New-York Times, March 16, 1997.

7 Armond White, “Scary Movie is Funny, Shaft is Scary,ˮ The New York Press, July 19, 2000.

8 Jim Kitses, Horizons West, Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1970.

9 John Singleton, commentary on the DVD of Rosewood (released in 1997).

10 See Matthew H. Bernstein. “A ‘Professional Southerner’ in the Hollywood Studio System: Lamar Trotti at Work, 1925-1952,” in Deborah Barker and Kathryn McKee (ed.), American Cinema and the Southern Imaginary, Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2011, 122-150.

11 See Allison Graham’s Framing the South: Hollywood, Television and Race during the Civil Rights Struggle, Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003.

12 Donald Bogle, Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies and Bucks: An Interpretative History of Blacks in Films, Viking Press, 1973, 10.

13 Tampa Morning Tribune, January 8, 1923.

14 Historian Anne Goodwyn Jones provides the following definition of the Southern belle in the 13th volume of the New Encyclopedia of Southern Culture: “Southern lore has it that the belle is a privileged white girl who is at the glamorous and exciting period between being a daughter and becoming a wife. She is the fragile, dewy, just-opened bloom of the Southern female: flirtatious but sexually innocent, bright but not deep, beautiful as a statue or painting or porcelain but risky to touch.ˮ (Jones, 42).

15 “Rape of white women signaled metaphorically white men’s fear of the loss of ability to provide for white women and physically their fear, given their treatment of black women, of the loss of white racial purity.ˮ Grace Elizabeth Hale, Making Whiteness, New York: Pantheon Books, 1998, 233.

16 “No single film in the silent era is more important to the critical history of stereotype than is D. W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation (USA, 1915). Here, the late-nineteenth century image of the African American male as rapist turns to pure spectacle in the ideologically weighted aesthetics of black-and-white film. In Gus, played in blackface by Walter Long, we have the filmic birth of what Donald Bogle (1989) calls the ‘brutal black buck’, a sexually uncontrollable figure who lusts after white women.” Robyn Wiegman, “Race, ethnicity, and film,” in John Hill & Pamela Church Gibson (eds.), The Oxford Guide to Film Studies, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998, 162.

17 Jonathan Markovitz, Legacies of Lynching: Racial Violence and Memory, Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press, 2004, 66.

18 “The Race Question,” Entertainment Weekly, March 7, 1997.

19 Micheaux’s Within Our Gates in particular was meant as a direct response to D. W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation. Griffith’s film had pictured Southern whites being attacked by black brutes. In Within Our Gates, Micheaux showed that African Americans were the real victims of white savagery, with the lynching of an innocent black family by crazed whites.

20 Ed Guerrero, “Review of RosewoodCineaste, Issue 23, Winter 1997, 46.

21 W.E.B. Dubois, The Souls of Black Folk, Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2007 [1903], 32.

22 Steven N. Lipkin, Real Emotional Logic, Carbondale and Edwardsville: University of Southern Illinois Press, 2002, 118.

23 Ralph Ellison, Going to the Territory, New York: Random House, 1986, 198.

24 Paula J. Massood, Black City Cinema: African American Urban Experiences in Film, Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2003, 194.

25 Jamie Barlowe, “The ‘Not-Free’ and ‘Not-Me’ Constructions of Whiteness in Rosewood and Ghosts of Mississippi,” Canadian Review of American Studies, vol. 28, n° 3, 1998, 38.

26 John Wayne, whose real name was Marion Mitchell Morrison, was an actor, director and producer who starred in dozens of mythical Hollywood Westerns and is often seen by film critics as the quintessential embodiment of the American cowboy on the Western frontier. The characters he portrayed were often of the silent, strong and tough type.

27 Craigh Barboza, John Singleton: Interviews, Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2009, 82.

28 Richard Slotkin, The Fatal Environment, Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1998, 22.

29 In the summer and fall of 1919, several race riots erupted in more than thirty American cities throughout the United States, most notably in Chicago and Washington, D.C. While the riots were sparked by labor shortages in the North and the Great Migration of African Americans from the South to the North, factors which created a lot of racial strife, they were also striking because African Americans aggressively fought back against whites.

30 “Movies: Rosewood,” Vibe, December 1996-January 1997, vol. 4, n° 10. 154.

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Claire Dutriaux, « Racial Violence at the Crossroads of West and South in Rosewood (John Singleton, 1997) », Revue LISA/LISA e-journal [En ligne], vol. XVI-n°1 | 2018, mis en ligne le 13 juillet 2018, consulté le 20 juillet 2018. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/lisa/9444 ; DOI : 10.4000/lisa.9444

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Auteur

Claire Dutriaux

Claire Dutriaux is Assistant Professor in American studies at Université Paris-Sorbonne. Her research interests include American cinema from the beginnings of the Hollywood industry to the contemporary era, focusing more specifically on issues of race and class in the movies. She has published articles and co-organized conferences on various subjects ranging from Southern films to westerns. The latest conference she organized at Paris-Sorbonne examined the links between visual culture and consumer culture, and she is currently working on publishing the proceedings of the conference.

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