Originally created 02/25/97

Making of a massacre



NEW YORK - History is almost always written by the victors, but what happened to the prosperous black community of Rosewood, Fla., in 1923 was so shameful that for generations, no one breathed a word.

Spurred on by a white woman's claim that she was beaten by a black stranger, white mobs burned down the town during a weeklong orgy of hate, lynching blacks and driving any survivors into the swamps, never to return.

At least two white men and six black residents died in the violence, which was front-page news throughout the nation at a time when Ku Klux Klan membership was at its peak and politicians didn't bother varnishing their racism.

But nobody was held responsible. Whites took over the land and soon dismissed the massacre as a nasty rumor. The survivors also kept quiet, for more than 60 years. Forced into poverty, with no one to turn to, it was best not to talk about what might have been.

"Black people don't want to remember being the victims of lynching, rape, the separation of families, living under Jim Crow and all the horrors those things entailed. And white folks don't want to remember being the perpetrators of that kind of persecution," said John Singleton, director of Rosewood, a shocking new film from Warner Bros. based on the massacre.

It wasn't until 1994, after a decade of fact-gathering by Rosewood's descendants, that the state of Florida finally acknowledged its utter abandonment of its citizens and granted $2.1 million in reparations.

Rosewood remains a symbol of how, for much of this century, blacks were denied the right to life and liberty that many Americans take for granted - especially blacks who owned land and were becoming wealthy. No matter how well they did, they were helpless in the face of a mob of violent bigots.

But that's a story the acclaimed 29-year-old director of Boyz in the Hood, Poetic Justice and Higher Learning had little interest in repeating. In Mr. Singleton's Rosewood, the blacks get some pay-back.

"If I made this movie straight, docu-style, nobody would go see it," Mr. Singleton said in an interview. "And that was my pitch to the studio: I said `If I make this movie, these people are going to fight back!"'

Mr. Singleton worked closely with Arnett Doctor, whose mother, Philomena, saw the white woman being attacked by her white lover that New Year's Day in 1923. Philomena Doctor later huddled in fear as the mob shot up her family's house and killed her grandmother. Her uncle, Sylvester Carrier, fired back, killing two white men and wounding several others who were breaking down the front door.

That defensive act, which bought the family time to escape, is by all accounts the only retribution achieved by the 150 or so residents of Rosewood, who were quickly hunted down by more than 1,000 bloodthirsty whites from as far away as Georgia. Those who survived were spirited away in the dark of night on a train that rolled quietly through the swamp.

Mr. Singleton, however, invents a black savior, a dashing World War I veteran played by Ving Rhames (Pulp Fiction, Mission: Impossible) who shoots about a dozen whites in blazing daylight gun-battles. Rosewood's residents - and the movie's audience - are allowed a few moments to cheer in triumph before the town is wiped from the map.

"I wanted to make a film that everybody will want to go see, to satisfy a hunger and a need," Mr. Singleton says.

"It's all in keeping with the hero - I wanted him to be like John Wayne used to be in those old movies. John Wayne used to come in and slap the Mexicans on the face and knock the Indians down, killing the Indians. I wanted a black man in a very strong role."

Mr. Singleton also shows a half-dozen blacks swinging from trees, when in reality only one was hanged: the blacksmith Sam Carter, who had unwittingly doomed Rosewood by helping the white lover escape.

"If it could be possible to exaggerate and sensationalize something so horrific as a lynching, it's done in this movie," says Michael D'Orso, author of Like Judgment Day, an exhaustive account of the Rosewood massacre and its impact on the survivors and their descendants.

"This story is not about triumph. It's about losing everything for generations to come," said Mr. D'Orso, who would have preferred that the movie include Florida's effort, 70 years later, to make amends for the massacre.

"I don't have any problem with taking the essence of a story and using dramatic license to make a better film," Mr. D'Orso adds. "This goes further than that. At this time in this country, this is walking on extremely thin ice. Nobody's going to win in a race war."

"We had a body made up, a model all cut up. I didn't show it. It was tasteful. I think it's only very dramatic to some people because of the racial element," Singleton says. "Race is like religion - people get their heads too hot."Singleton left out some gruesome details. He didn't show Carter being carved up alive or another man being dragged by a car. He didn't show the body parts white Gulf Coast residents would keep for years in jars.

Ultimately, "Rosewood" is a stunning film about race relations. The raw language, the giddiness of the mob, the irrational pride of whites forcing their children to watch their own neighbors being lynched - all of this will surely provoke those who aren't familiar with American history.

And that has Singleton glowing in anticipation.

"Boom! Boom! Boom!" he says, hurling the words like bombshells from his hand as he imagines the impact his movie will have down the coast from Rosewood in St. Petersburg, Fla., which suffered two race riots last year.

"You can't run from history," he says. "And we're writing history right now. You cannot deny history. You cannot suppress it. Fact. It's going to be very interesting to hear the response."

But D'Orso worries that the response could be incendiary.

"America is so ready for a movie that's not about gangbangers, not `New Jack City,' and also not about blacks as portrayed in `Gone With the Wind.' This story could have been told in a realer, truer, more powerful way, to have people leave with food for thought, not just fiery rage and anger."

Wilson Hall, who was 7 years old when the mob torched his family's house, also is furious about the movie, particularly the decision to show multiple hangings and have a black hero survive running gun-battles with the mob.

"I don't think it's right," Hall said. They're not only building the fire bigger, they're throwing gas on it. Singleton, Arnett, they ain't been here that long. They don't know what's happened in this country. They ain't seen the improvements in this country, so they don't know.

"They waited 72 years to make the story. Why let it set that long and then screw it up - especially when some of the people that was in Rosewood are still living, and they know that that's not the truth?" adds Hall, one of several Rosewood survivors calling for a boycott of the film. They charge that unlike the respect shown Holocaust survivors with "Schindler's List," Warner Bros. wouldn't let them see the movie before its release.

Warner Bros. was called by The Associated Press but had no immediate response.

University of Florida historian David Colburn, a member of the state panel that documented Rosewood's history for the claims bill, said what really happened "would have been fascinating enough as it was."

"The survivors' story is remarkable," Mr. Colburn said. "I guess I'd like to see them portrayed as the heroes and heroines, and not some fictionalized character."

But Mr. Singleton, now filming a movie based on Gordon Parks' acclaimed detective film, Shaft, in New York, says his Rosewood "is more satisfying, for today's audience."

"The intellectuals are asking for a documentary. but I'm making a motion picture for the masses," he says. "The story was suppressed for so long and now it's getting out. People will research it and talk about it and think. Hopefully, it will affect some people."

Now showing

Rosewood, a film based on the true story of a race riot by whites against blacks in 1922, is showing at Regency Exchange Cinemas, Regal Augusta Village 12 Cinemas, and Aiken Mall. The film is rated R and directed by John Singleton (Boyz N the Hood). Roger Ebert gave it ‹‹‹«.