by David Sisler
My usual choice in motion pictures is another chapter in the Star Trek saga, or, what my Dad called a "Bang, bang. Shoot em up." When I first saw the trailers for Rosewood, however, I said, "This is a film I must see." When I read that the "hero" Mr. Mann, a World War I veteran, was invented, leading to the likelihood that real heroism was downplayed, and the truth was played fast and loose, I almost did not go.
I did not know that the director was John Singleton (Boyz in the Hood, Poetic Justice, and Higher Learning), so my first suspicion was, did Oliver Stone make this movie? (Oliver Stone movies should be released with a disclaimer which shouts, "Warning! Viewing this film may be hazardous to your perception of reality!") What is wrong with the truth?
The despicable tragedy of Rosewood, Florida, was hushed up, forgotten, or ignored for almost 70 years. Then survivors and their descendants sought compensation from the State of Florida. The Florida Legislature authorized and funded a team of researchers from Florida A&M University, Florida State and the University of Florida to read primary documents, interview survivors and their family members, and learn what happened those cold January days more than half a century ago.
On New Year's Day 1923, a white woman named Fannie Taylor in a Florida town named Sumner announced that she'd been beaten up by a black man. Enraged, a white mob killed Sam Carter, a blacksmith in the neighboring black town of Rosewood who allegedly had helped Taylor's attacker get away. Meanwhile, Taylor's maid, a Rosewood woman named Sarah Carrier, told friends and family that it was Taylor's own white lover who had assaulted her. Four days later, supposedly in pursuit of Taylor's attacker, whites stormed the Carrier house, killing Sarah and her son Sylvester. During the attack, however, Sylvester managed to kill Henry Andrews, the superintendent of the Cummer Lumber Co.'s sawmill in Sumner, and C.P. "Poly" Wilkerson, a mill official. A February 15, 1923 Grand Jury report said there was "insufficient evidence" to prosecute.
Those may be the only facts about Rosewood which are not in dispute. The full text of the report prepared for the Legislature may be found on the Internet at http://fn1.tfn.net/rosewood/.
Defending his fabrications and additions to the story, Director Singleton said, "I wanted to make a film that everybody will want to see, to satisfy a hunger and a need."
In 1915, the motion picture The Birth of a Nation premiered. It ran for 47 weeks in New York alone and was endorsed by President Woodrow Wilson. But, the Florida researchers state, "Wherever the movie was shown, race relations deteriorated and racial violence frequently occurred." The years from 1917 to 1923 saw race riots in Chicago, Tulsa, Omaha, and East St. Louis, as well as Rosewood. The racial hatred and bitterness on both sides resulted in death on both sides and the wanton destruction of personal property on both sides. Are these the kinds of hungers and needs Mr. Singleton wishes to satisfy?
The official death toll, at Rosewood, was eight dead, two whites, six blacks. Other versions, and the movie displays them, says between 40 and 150 Americans of African heritage were killed. Both of those statements appeared on the screen at the end of the movie. It was the second body count which produced one of the largest reactions from the audience with whom I saw the film. We cringed at the rage of the bigoted whites. We cheered when the villains were shot. We applauded when the children escaped. We celebrated when a white woman held off the rioters with a shotgun, protecting several black citizens who were hiding in her house. But when the second calculation of the dead appeared, angry murmuring swept the theater. One man, an African American, shouted, "I knew it! Those filthy murders!" Are these the kinds of hungers and needs Mr. Singleton wishes to satisfy?
Leaving the theater, I overheard a white man say, "I felt like I was cheering for the Indians and against John Wayne." Are these the kinds of hungers and needs Mr. Singleton wishes to satisfy?
Some of the survivors objected to the fictionalized account, stating that it trivialized truly heroic events and stirred again the feelings which led to the burning of Rosewood. Michael D'Orso, author of Like Judgment Day, an exhaustive account of the Rosewood massacre and its impact on the survivors and their descendants said, "This story is not about triumph. It's about losing everything for generations to come."
I have seen the movie. Even with its flaws, I recommend that you see it. I have read the Legislature's report. It should be required reading. It is vastly more disturbing.
All of this makes me wonder when will the color of our skin no longer weigh for us or against us? When will truth and truth alone determine a human being's worth? Today? Not today? Tomorrow then? Not tomorrow? Then when?
Published in the Augusta Chronicle 3/15/97
Copyright 1997 by David Sisler. All Rights Reserved.
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