In 1923, the predominantly black town of Rosewood, Florida, was burned to the ground. White locals had become convinced that a black drifter had raped a white woman and sought vengeance against their black neighbors, killing at least six and as many as 27 of them. It was not an isolated attack: Rosewood’s fate mirrored that of more than a dozen black communities in the late 1910s and early 1920s, during the 73-year stretch of vigilante violence known as “the lynching era,” which claimed at least 4,000 lives from 1877 to 1950. Black sections of Longview, Texas, and Tulsa, Oklahoma, had been razed by white mobs under similar circumstances in 1919 and 1921, respectively. Both communities survived their massacres. Rosewood was wiped off the face of the earth.
Survivors who fled Rosewood were silent about their ordeal in public until local reporters stumbled across their story in the early 1980s. News and magazine reports followed. National interest grew as the victims’ descendants initiated a claims case against the state of Florida for failing to protect their families. They launched a media blitz to draw attention, discussing the killings on news programs and daytime talk shows including 60 Minutes and The Maury Povich Show. The lawsuit fizzled, but state legislators took up the case, commissioning a study aimed at determining reparations. Between 1994 and 1995, Florida awarded the Rosewood survivors $150,000 each. Nine of them were alive to collect.
Cinema thrives on dramatizing perseverance, so it is remarkable how few films exist about black Americans’ experiences with white terrorism. One reason for this paucity is that these stories subvert Hollywood’s myth-making function — the lynching era is harder to shroud in heroism than, say, frontiersman-ship or fighting in the Second World War. But John Singleton forced his audiences to confront it anyway. Six years and three feature films after writing and directing the Oscar-nominated drama Boyz n the Hood in 1991, the South Central Los Angeles native — who died on Monday at age 51 — decided to bring the story of Rosewood to the silver screen. The eponymously titled result is far from perfect. It condescends to its audience by plopping the plot of a Western in the middle of an otherwise affecting portrait of black community and racism in the 1920s. But it accomplishes a feat that few other films have: telling the truth about what was required — beyond the law — to maintain America’s racist hierarchy during the period between emancipation and the civil-rights movement.
The value of such a feat is perhaps self-evident, but as further confirmation of its importance, it should be noted that historical films often serve as popular record. A 2009 study about historical education from Washington University in St. Louis found that films about history help students retain lessons, but often supersede those lessons in their memories if the information they contain contradicts that in historical texts. In the same way that Amadeus (1984) etched in popular consciousness that Mozart was a childish boor — despite historical evidence to the contrary — misleading or absent cinematic depictions of black hardship between the Civil War and the civil-rights era have left a gap filled by misinformation and propaganda. The urtext of post–Civil War white-supremacist terrorism on film — D.W. Griffith’s silent epic Birth of a Nation (1915) — depicts the Ku Klux Klan not as villains, but as valiant protectors of the Old South against the purported vice and corruption of black political leadership during Reconstruction.
The Klan in Singleton’s Rosewood (1997) is undoubtedly villainous, but its villainy pales compared to that of the region’s more ordinary white residents. White hoods are seen in a handful of scenes dispersed among mobs peopled more frequently by local workers and sheriff’s deputies, unmasked and unabashed. The carnivalesque atmosphere that defined many lynchings is on vivid display. Killers pose in broad daylight in front of incinerated black corpses while photographers take pictures. Women and children picnic at the feet of black bodies hanging from trees. Local law enforcement deputizes white locals to hunt down an escaped black prisoner — a figure who never actually materializes in the film, but whose specter serves as a vessel in which whites can store their spiraling racist outrage and then weaponize it against their black neighbors.
Most important, the white people of Rosewood are depicted as human beings rather than caricatures. As was the case in real life, the threat of a neighbor gone berserk was more terrifying for black people — and more likely to occur — than any monster they could imagine. This is not to say that Singleton’s film is a faithful historical portrayal. It arguably exaggerates the reported death toll of the attack, and the Eastwood-esque “Mann” character played by Ving Rhames is a clear and unfortunate fabrication. But the starkest fault in how this era has been portrayed on film is atmospheric and hinges on misleading dynamics — that, for example, racist white people during Jim Crow were inhuman ghouls, or in the case of Griffith’s film, crusaders motivated by patriotism and black defect. Rosewood bucks this trend by depicting lynch mobs as consisting of ordinary human beings brought together, with varying degrees of trepidation, by a vicious practice that was nonetheless normal for its time. It is perhaps the closest an American film gets to an honest assessment of the lynching era. And as a valuable supplement to written materials on the subject, it demythologizes how white community was crafted and affirmed in many parts of the United States.
There should be more films like Rosewood, imperfect though it was — both narrative and documentary. One of Singleton’s most important legacies is that he was one of the few filmmakers who dared to try and had the clout to pull it off. Recent developments like the opening of the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama, have since affirmed his mission, making the history of lynching more available for public consumption. But more cinematic intervention is warranted too. And 22 years after Rosewood, Singleton’s death casts a harsh light on Hollywood’s failure to meet the challenge.