Reprinted from the April 1997 Visual Parables
Once to every man and nation/Comes the moment to decide,
In the strife of truth with falsehood,/For the good or evil side;
Some great cause, some new decision, Offering each the bloom or blight,
And the choice goes by forever ‘Twixt that darkness and that light.
James Russell Lowell
Rated R, Running time: 2 hours 20 min.
Our content ratings: Violence 6; Language 4; Sex/Nudity 1
Our star rating (1-5): 5
Director John Singleton’s newest film is a cowboy adventure set in the midst of a tragic historical event, the burning down of the Florida town of Rosewood, populated mainly by blacks, during the first week of January, 1923, by mobs from the neighboring white town of Sumner. A young white woman’s false claim to have been beaten by a black man so arouses the already jealous white men of the community that not even the sincere efforts of the sheriff to restrain their fury has any affect.
In the film the white woman is a wife having an adulterous affair with a hot-tempered white man, who beats her severely while her husband is away. Her black cleaning woman Aunt Sarah (Esther Rolle) knows that the story of her mistress is not true, but not wanting to get involved or be seen contradicting a white person, she keeps silent as the story spreads. Her silence will be costly, both for her community and for herself personally. Meanwhile a stranger on horseback comes to Rosewood. Giving only the name “Mann” (Ving Rhames). He intends to buy a parcel of land up for auction, but the sale is interrupted by the inflammatory news of the white woman’s accusation. Mann, despite his desire to settle down and also his attraction to the independent-minded Scrappie (Elise Neal), decides to leave. Both she and her brother Sylvester (Dan Cheadle) urge him to stay and help defend the town, but Mann replies that he will probably be the chief target of the lynch mob. Of course, as in all good cowboy films, the reluctant hero cannot escape the impending storm.
Nor can the only white man living in Rosewood, John Wright (Jon Voight, owner of the only general store there. While sharing some of the prejudices of other whites of the era, John has tried to deal fairly with his black customers. He wants to avoid entanglement in the fiery events swirling around him and his family, but he is forced to make a choice when a wounded black farmer appeals for a hiding place. Other blacks have already been shot or strung up, their homes still burning. It is the kind of choice celebrated by James Russell Lowell in his great poem, one that certainly has great consequences for the shopkeeper and his family.
As we see the terrible events unfold, one scene of the bodies of black victims being dumped into a pit calling up similar scenes from Auschwitz, Bosnia, and Rwanda, the last words of the poem haunt us, “And behind the dim unknown, Standeth God within the shadow Keeping watch above His own.” At first one wishes he would do more than just keep watch — and then we realize that God is indeed acting through the ensuing heroism of Wright, Mann and others, including even two white railroad engineers whom the former persuade to bring their train to the rescue of the fugitive blacks hiding in the swamps.
Unforgettable scenes: One of the leaders of the mob forcing his son to “be a man” and gaze into the pit containing the bodies of Rosewood residents — see the description in “Lectionary Links” for April 20. Also, Mann finding a new use for his lethal pistol: when a crucial rod of the steam engine breaks, jeopardizing the train’s rescue mission, Mann puts the barrel of the pistol into the hole of the two parts. When asked what will keep the pistol in place, an engineer replies, “Prayer.” An interesting form of Isaiah the prophet’s words, “And they shall beat their swords into plowshares”?