THE VIRGINIAN-PILOT Copyright (c) 1997, Landmark Communications, Inc. DATE: Sunday, February 16, 1997 TAG: 9702140719 SECTION: COMMENTARY PAGE: J1 EDITION: FINAL SOURCE: BY MIKE D'ORSO LENGTH: 236 lines
It was a year ago that I last returned to Rosewood. The place had always seemed surreal to anyone who knew the story behind the lonely, turn-of-the-century, wood-frame house that sits today at the edge of a godforsaken north-Florida swamp.
The house is all that remains of what was once a vibrant village of land-owning, Lord-fearing people, all of them black, and now, three-quarters of a century after they were visited by the wrath of God in the form of a massive lynch mob, almost all of them dead.
The Rosewood Massacre is what it was called, and for a year-and-a-half I followed its vapor trail ghosts across the state of Florida, sipping sweet tea on the porches of shacks in hamlets with names like Lacoochee and Hilliard, searching the slums of Miami and St. Petersburg, nursing beers in redneck bars and jook joints in Jacksonville and Cedar Key, all in an effort to piece together a story that only seemed to unravel the further into it I groped.
I had never heard of Rosewood until an April morning in 1994, the day Florida's House of Representatives gathered to vote on a highly controversial claims bill filed in the name of a town that had been wiped out seven decades earlier. Dozens of descendants of Rosewood's 200 or so inhabitants, along with the nine remaining survivors of that 1923 attack, sought $2.1 million from the state for what had been lost a lifetime before.
The debate was intense. Reporters from across the country - including Esquire magazine, ``60 Minutes,'' NBC's ``Dateline'' - jammed the press gallery, watching the families watch the lawmakers argue about the sins of our fathers, about the can of snakes that might be opened by making a payment like this one, about hurt and healing and the soul of a society seething with racial sores.
It was a front-page piece in The Wall Street Journal the morning of the that vote that caught my eye, and within a week I was headed south from my home in Norfolk, joining the swarm of authors, film producers, con men and hustlers beating their wings around the Rosewood families, each pushing for a piece of the action.
I'd seen this sort of feeding frenzy before, the hit-and-run element of the publishing and entertainment industry in America, how it scours the morning headlines and sifts through the nightly news, hunting for true-life drama, tragedy, betrayal, triumph - anything that has a chance for a quick turnaround and a shot at the bestseller lists, maybe even a movie-of-the-week.
Amy Fisher. John Gotti. O.J. Yesterday's headline are tomorrow's hot title if the price is right and the newspaper clippings are plentiful.
Rosewood had it all. Necks and nooses. Shotguns and flames. Mobs and moonlight and children driven into the dark wetness of a wintry swamp.
There was more to this story, of course, than just the nightmarish week of the unthinkable attack. Far more. That's what I counted on as I began my own journey after the legislature voted the Rosewood Bill into law. I had faith that the further I pushed into the tangle of reporting and research, trying to somehow get my arms around this thing, the emptier the landscape would become in terms of others supposedly doing the same thing.
And it did.
Except for the film.
There had been talk of a movie from the beginning, but then there's always talk of a movie. A year into my reporting, I began to hear whispers about Warner Brothers, that the Rosewood families had signed over the rights to their collective story. It was odd watching a man like Arnett Doctor, the son of survivor and the spearhead of the families' cause, break down in tears one minute while recounting the pain his mother carried through most of her life, then brighten the next at the prospect of seeing that pain projected on the big screen.
Hollywood fever. I watched it grow, taking a parallel track to my own, covering some of the same ground, wrapping its tendrils around many of the same men and women I'd come to know so well over the course of the previous year. For a time we ran side by side, the filmmakers and I, my book nearing the end of its course as the movie began charting its own.
By the time I shipped my manuscript to New York, the mild level of interest that had been stirred in Florida by a reporter writing a book about Rosewood was swamped by the news of a feature-length film in the making. The tiniest tidbits of information about the movie earned headlines in newspapers from Key West to Pensacola. Jon Peters - Barbara Streisand's ex-hairdresser and ex-husband - would produce. John Singleton - whose ``Boyz in the Hood'' had earned an Oscar nomination - signed on to direct. Ving Rhaymes (``Pulp Fiction,'' ``Mission Impossible'') and Jon Voight (``Midnight Cowboy,'' ``Deliverance,'' ``Coming Home'') would star.
I also learned that Warner Brothers had become aware of my book much as I had become aware of their movie - which is to say from a distance, and somewhat warily. I was doing my thing, they were doing theirs. What we shared was the same subject, and that was my only concern. When I heard toward the end of 1995 that the film version of the Rosewood story would focus entirely on the week of that 1923 attack, my concern turned to alarm.
I had had a sense when I set out to write this book that the torching of Rosewood, as horrific as it was, was merely the doorway into a much broader story. It was how the immolation of this community played itself out over the next 70 years, the effect it had on so many lives, black and white alike, that seemed most compelling to me. That was the story I discovered, the one I struggled to tell. The attack itself became just the prologue to my book, the first 27 pages of what wound up as a 691-page manuscript.
When I learned that the attack was as far as the film would go, I was uneasy - not as a writer, but as a member of a society where no issue at the moment is more combustible than race. That, and my respect for the holy and elusive power of the truth, had me mightily shook up at the thought that this vast, achingly human story might be reduced to an action flick, a black Alamo, two hours of gunshots and flames ending in nothing but smoke and ashes.
No question that story would be powerful. But would it be complete? Would it acknowledge all the dimensions of an incident that strikes at the core of a topic so much at the center of our society today? Would it recognize the ongoing struggle for atonement and conciliation as much as the pain of loss and ruin?
In the climate of these times, in the wake of L.A. and O.J. and the recent rioting in St. Petersburg, these important questions cannot be avoided. In an age when far more people watch movies than read books, when the facts too many people know are limited to what they see on television or hear on talk radio, when a man like Oliver Stone holds more power over the past he chooses to interpret than a mere professor of history could ever imagine, what kind of responsibility does a filmmaker have to honor both the accuracy and the essence of a story he chooses to tell?
It's too much to expect a two-hour film to portray all aspects of a subject as layered as Rosewood. But what is shown with a subject this volatile must be shown carefully, with exquisite attention to the consequences and effects, emotionally and otherwise, on the audience that will emerge from the theater when the lights come up. Stirring anger and outrage is easy. Sowing the seeds of something approaching wisdom and understanding is a far more dicey and difficult task.
In the spring of last year, when my book came out, I got a chance to see how the film was taking shape. A promotional junket took me to a small Florida town an hour or so inland from Daytona Beach. It was not far from where the film was being shot, in the woods down toward Orlando.
Half the men and women who stopped by my table during a Saturday-morning book signing made a point of telling me they were ``in the movie.'' Ads asking for extras had been placed in local papers, and the response had been overwhelming. Most of the hundreds hired had been used to fill the ranks of the lynch mob. The fact that these 1990s men, women and children were playing the role of a 1920s killing party didn't temper their excitement. ``It was so cool,'' one teenage girl told me, describing her day in costume. ``I just hope they don't cut me out.''
That afternoon I got a chance to visit the set. Arnett Doctor dropped by and drove me out, through scrub pines and sawgrass, to a spot in the middle of nowhere, the air heavy with heat and mosquitoes. Guards stopped our car at a makeshift checkpoint, erected after a much-publicized visit a couple of months earlier by two card-carrying members of the Ku Klux Klan. Several calls over their walkie-talkies and we were let through.
Sprawled across a clearing the size of three football fields sat a small city of trailers - more than the number of houses that once stood in Rosewood. This was command central for the movie. Beyond the trailers sat the rebuilt town of Rosewood, complete with homes and churches, Masonic lodge, railroad tracks, all of it constructed from scratch, taking what must have been a substantial chunk of what became a $40 million budget.
Arnett walked off to sample the grilled swordfish in the lunch tent while I was led by an assistant to one of the trailers. A knock on the door and I was let in.
A haggard-looking blond guy wearing a turn-of-the-century shopkeeper's costume - leather apron, button-up linen shirt, muddy slacks and work boots - rose slowly from the sofa and shook my hand. Jon Voight.
A tall, slim black man with a shaved head and John Lennon sunglasses introduced himself. John Singleton.
Singleton said he'd read my book. So, he said, had most of the cast and crew. He'd met some of the family members as well, and he talked about how powerful that experience had been, especially meeting several of the survivors themselves: A.T. Goins, who shined enough shoes in the half century after the attack to put his daughter through college; Willie Evans, who, the day he received his compensation check for $150,000 from the state, walked across the street from his termite-ridden bungalow in the little town of Sanford to give 10 percent to his church.
Singleton talked about each of them, and about Minnie Lee Langley, who died last December up in Jacksonville, just as filming was about to begin. Anyone who ever met Minnie Lee could not help but be struck by the potent combination of coyness, pride, humor, suspicion and faith wrapped up in that bony little body, a body that couldn't have weighed more than 80 pounds.
More than any of the others, it was Minnie Lee who captured the attention of the press and came to represent Rosewood in the public eye. When she passed away just before Christmas last winter, the death made headlines across Florida.
Singleton went to Minnie Lee's funeral, he told me, and he left even more sobered by the severity of the story he was going to try to tell. He said hardly a day went by that he didn't think of the survivors. It was eerie, he said, watching his actors merge into the roles of these real-life people.
Just before I got up to go, Singleton ducked into a back room and emerged with a large photograph, a black-and-white portrait of the movie's main characters, the Carrier family, posed in period costume on the front porch of one of the set's homes, looking proud and vulnerable and tragic. Sarah Carrier, her son Sylvester, her daughters Beauty and Sweetie - men and women whose lives I'd spent so long reconstructing - now they were here, made flesh and blood by these actors and actresses.
Singleton was moved by the photo. So was I. By the time I left that afternoon, I felt better about what this man and the people around him seemed to be trying to do.
Nearly a year has passed. I've read the film's screenplay, embellished with fictitious intrigues and romances and featuring a Clint Eastwood-style main character - a loner, a drifter, a man whose name nobody knows - created solely for the movie. Never mind that such a man never actually existed. He was needed for the drama, and so there he is.
The paperback of the book, with an introduction written by Singleton, just came out. ``Rosewood,'' the movie, is premiering this week, with the requisite buzz. Words like ``important'' and ``weighty'' and ``Oscar'' have been attached to what some are calling John Singleton's career-defining film. One magazine referred to it as his ``Malcolm X.''
Last week I finally saw the film. It is as powerful as I imagined it might be, sweepingly gorgeous and deeply human in its re-creation of this doomed little town.
It is also as disturbing as I feared. Its depiction of the attack shows black bodies swinging from trees like Christmas ornaments. In fact, one man was hanged that week, which is horrific enough. It shows its hero mowing down white mob members one after the other before finally riding off into the forest at the end of film, a fantasy compared to the fact that the one man who dared to fight back in Rosewood was killed in a hail of bullets.
The crowd I watched the film with cheered mightily as each white man fell. The sense of payback was palpable. I understand the cathartic need behind those cheers, but they are misdirected and misled. There was no triumph in Rosewood in 1923 or in any place like it in America. It was not until 1993 that Rosewood received a taste of justice, of victory, of payback.
But that's not in the movie. MEMO: ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Norfolk writer Mike D'Orso, author of the critically acclaimed ``Like
Judgment Day,'' the definitive history of the Rosewood, Fla., racial
massacre of 1923, waited with fear and fascination as Warner Brothers
attempted to capture, in two hours of film, the delicate and emotional
story that had taken him a year and a half, and hundreds of pages, to
Could the film, which opens in theaters Friday, do justice to the
story? Or would it be another guns-blazing action flick, a ``black
Alamo'' movie designed to score as many box-office points as possible?
D'Orso addresses those fears and what he learned in this essay, which
is adapted from a story he wrote for ``The Oxford American'' magazine.
Thursday, he will appear on Court TV to discuss the book and the movie.
Next Thursday, he does the same on Oprah Winfrey's television talk-show. ILLUSTRATION: WARNER BROTHERS STUDIO
An angry white mob attacks a black settlement in the movie
Fighting back: actor Don Cheadle
Jon Voight, center, is among the stars in "Rosewood," which opens in