We have a lot of information to cover, so I’m not going to bore you with a long intro. But the 1997 film Rosewood was a bit of a game-changer. Not only did it portray Blacks as self sufficient and prosperous, it told a very ugly and uncomfortable truth about White people and the diabolical and horrifying lengths racism caused them to go. Check out the behind the scenes secrets of both the film and the real story on the following pages.
The Real Story
You may already know that the movie was based on a true story. But here are the real deal facts just in case you were unclear. Like the film, the riots were started when a White woman, Fannie Taylor, in the nearby town of Sumner, claimed, initially, that a Black man assaulted her and then later that he raped her. But–and this is important– a Black woman who worked with Mrs. Taylor knew that she had a lover, in addition to her husband. Fannie and her lover had gotten into an argument earlier and he hit her, leaving bruises. Well, she couldn’t tell her husband that her lover hit her, so she played the well known “blame a Black man” game.
And in the ensuing riot, including hundreds of White mob members, resulted in at least six African American and two White deaths.
Survivors of the massacre had to hide in swamps until they were evacuated by trains and cars to other, larger towns in Florida. No arrests were ever made and none of the Black residents ever returned.
The story was generally underreported until the late eighties. Around that time, the descendants of the survivors formed a network and sued the state of Florida for failing to protect the African American community. As a result the descendants were compensated for the damages suffered due to racial violence.
And in 2004, Rosewood was designated a historical landmark.
How Singleton came to direct
After investigative reporting from from CBS’ “60 Minutes”, Peters Entertainment acquired the rights to the story. And Jon Peters said, in an interview with Film Scouts, “I’ve known John since the beginning of his career and I knew he had the talent, the guts and the heart to tell this story. I knew he could make it work dramatically and he could deal with the issues at the same time.”
Facing the past
In an interview with the LA Times, before the movie was released, Singleton explained why he felt compelled to direct and what he got out of the whole process.
“I had a very deep—I wouldn’t call it fear—but a deep contempt for the South because I felt that so much of the horror and evil that black people have faced in this country is rooted here … So in some ways this is my way of dealing with the whole thing.”
It was also an incredible opportunity. In that same Film Scouts interview, Singleton said that there weren’t a lot of filmmakers, and particularly Black filmmakers who had been given the chance to direct a story with so much relevance to American history and present day life.
And while Singleton recognized the greatness that stood before him, everyone didn’t receive it that way. Quite a few actors were scared to take on such touchy subject matter. Singleton said:
“I found that a lot of actors were hesitant to take part in a picture like this because of the subject matter. That automatically weeded out the meek from being involved, so all the actors who did take part ended up being the strongest ones we could ever have hoped for.
“A case in point is Jon Voight, who portrays John Wright, the head of Rosewood’s only white family. Jon is known for taking roles in films that have challenging subject matter, like “Midnight Cowboy,” “Deliverance'” and “Coming Home,” so it was great to have him become involved in this project.
“Jon is one of the most unselfish actors I’ve ever met. He makes everyone else better because he is really very caring about the whole of the piece. Sometimes I felt that he was uncomfortable playing the white Southern man in this era who had a superior attitude, which is a testimony to how good a person Jon is. It was very interesting to see him go through the paces of playing this character.”
In the movie, Don Cheadle played the character Sylvester Carrier. And Gertrude, another character in the film, was played by Bridgid Coulter, who just so happens to be Cheadle’s long-time partner. The two, though they are not married, are still together today and have two children.
And speaking of love, in speaking with the LA Times, Cheadle recounted his own family’s chilling experience with racism and what his grandfather did to shield his children from knowing the truth for as long as he could.
“It’s real funny to see how far we’ve come and how far we haven’t come. This is not that long ago. In Kansas, my mom used to be able to go to the amusement park one day out of every year. It was called Nigger Day. But my grandfather would never let them go. They didn’t know till they were much older that this is what it was called, they just knew he wouldn’t let them go, and they thought he was the meanest man around. But my mother said, ‘He would rather us hate him than know that America hated us that much.’ “
Elise Neal must have been counting her lucky stars to be starring alongside Ving Rhames, Don Cheadle and Esther Rolle for her very first feature film. Like many Black people in the south, Neal could relate to the struggles of racism. Neal grew up in Memphis and told the LA Times, she didn’t have to reach too far to imagine what the people of Rosewood might have been feeling.
Minnie Lee Langley and Lee Ruth Davis, pictured above, were 9 and 8 respectively, when they had to leave their hometown of Rosewood. Langley watched her father kill a White man trying to attack their family. She lost her grandfather James during the massacre. Lee Ruth Davis, who was a cousin to Minnie, was forced to leave with her father. Davis’ parents left she and some other children with a White family who were keeping them safe during the massacre. When the children were left alone for some time, they assumed that something had happened and they left the house. Davis told the LA Times: “It is the first time in my life that I see people with guns. . . . We all got down on our bellies and crawled. I don’t know how far we crawled on the stomach. We tried to keep people from seeing us through the bushes.”
Arnett Doctor was 51-years-old in 1996, a year before the film came out. His great-grandfather Ed Goins was the second largest land owner in Rosewood. His turpentine still employed 50 people. Ruth and Minnie were also his cousins. Doctor, who served as a consultant for the film, told Singleton: “Son, you were chosen to do this movie by God. So don’t try to take anything from it or add a whole lot to it. Just do the movie. It’ll take care of itself.”
Doctor, naturally, held a bit of resentment toward the incident and what it did to his family.
“My great-grandfather was the major employer in Rosewood and his sons and his daughters were fairly well educated people, and then this atrocity occurred and bango! My mother and her brother and her sister–no education. My mother’s generation was cut off. All of a sudden my mother had to start scrubbing floors.”
The movie had to compete with the release of not one but two Star Wars remakes. And it came in eighth place that weekend, grossing $3.1 million.
There were several critics who took issue with the fact that the story wasn’t a true depiction of what really happened in the town. While some of those people likely had a problem with racism being so broadly displayed on screen, there were those with more personal grips.
If you’ve seen the movie, you probably remember the scene where Jon Voight is having sex with his store clerk Jewel, played by Akosua Busia. Jewel was based on a real woman and this real woman had several children who were still living when the movie was released. One of her sons was not too happy about his mother being portrayed as a promiscuous woman. Her son was so upset about the portrayal that, legend has it that he had a heart attack and died six months later.
What the movie got right
So what actually happened that the movie depicted? According to the LA Times, there really was a standoff between Sylvester Carrier (Don Cheadle) and the White mob. Wright, played by Jon Voight, did help women and children escape from the town on a train in the middle of the night. Sarah Carrier, Sylvester’s mother (played by Esther Rolle) really was killed by a man she nursed in childhood. One man was shot in front of a local sheriff and another man was forced to dig his own grave.
Why the “Happy” Ending?
What you’ll notice watching the film is that it ends with a great deal of hope and even a sense of pride in the fact that these Black people took their survival into their own hands. The New York Times argued that the story refuses to let the Blacks in Rosewood take on the role of victims. Instead he portrays the people of Rosewood as having “an idyllic past in which black families are intact, loving and prosperous, and a black superhero who changes the course of history when he escapes the noose, takes on the mob with double-barreled ferocity and saves many women and children from death.”