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Films >> Rosewood (1997) >> Issue Essay >>

Violence, Spectacle, and Cultural Erasure

By Cayla McNally

[1] In John Singleton's often overlooked Rosewood, a racial power struggle results in the decimation of an all-black town. What results from the massacre at Rosewood is an active erasure of an instance of black resistance within the larger narrative of anti-black violence at the hands of organized white supremacy. The erasure effectively undoes the work of past acts of resistance against the monolith of white hatred and creates a dishonest history in which black people are cast as acquiescing victims rather than as subtle resisters. Film critic Tracy Barone suggests that Rosewood tells three histories that have been marginalized by the national history of American exceptionalism:

The first is a story of black achievement in the face of overwhelming adversity in the Jim Crow America of the early twentieth century. The second story is of the bestial racial violence visited upon Americans of African descent, particularly in the wake of World War I. The final story, the most undertold of all, is black resistance to that violence, a resistance that frequently rose to heroic if often not effective levels. (635)
In this regard, the film serves as a way to dredge up an institutionally buried past from the mausoleum of national meta-history. By demonstrating the violence enacted on black bodies, the film gives voice to both the survivors and victims of the violence and shines a light on the act of silencing itself. What is occurring within the drama of the film -- and what the film itself is trying to combat -- is a marginalization, an erasure. The white residents of Sumner want to erase the residents of Rosewood in multiple ways. They want to physically erase them, to slaughter them and drive them from their land. They also want to erase them from popular memory, so that history will forget the citizens of Rosewood and that which they represent. There is a direct correlation between the economic inequalities present in the Rosewood-Sumner power relation with the concept of spectacle as a mode of silencing, which then informs Singleton's forced trope of safe-guarding what has come to be seen as traditional American masculinity. Through this triptych, the act of silencing that occurs with the Rosewood massacre is revealed, but it is also re-obscured.

[2] Much of the need to erase the residents of Rosewood stems from the economic inequalities between them and the white residents of Sumner. Though the residents of Sumner exercise the power and privilege afforded them as white citizens, they are more economically disenfranchised than the black residents of Rosewood. The residents of Rosewood represent black economic success and -- during the days surrounding the massacre -- black resistance against the monolith of white oppression. The residents of Sumner were simply looking for a reason to enact economic vengeance on the inhabitants of Rosewood and to negate their existence. Anything could have been the last straw, and it is arbitrary that it was Fannie Taylor's claim of being attacked that served as the catalyst for the racial cleansing of Rosewood. The scenes of Fannie's accusation are coupled with those of Mann outbidding John Wright for a substantial amount of land, leading to intensified suspicion of a black stranger with a sizeable amount of money. This suggests that perhaps the chaos Mann introduces into what should be a straightforward auction is as important to violence as Fannie's claim. The white residents of Sumner resent the wealth that some residents of Rosewood possess. While most of Sumner's occupants seem to be living in clapboard houses, Rosewood residents such as Sylvester Carrier own luxuries such as pianos. Strangely, the search for Fannie Taylor's attacker results in the further destabilizing of the white economy, as all business is put on hold so that all men may participant in the manhunt. As a result of this economic tension and bitterness, the reappropriation of economic goods plays a major role in how the lynch mob measures its victory over Rosewood. When Sam Carter is lynched, it is his watch, and not a body part, that it kept as a token, implying that the economics are as important to the violence as the racial strife that they fuel.

[3] Conversely, while economics and pride are what fuel the lynch mob of Sumner, they also cause the black community in Rosewood to stand their ground; as Sylvester notes, "We own this here land. We pay taxes on it. Now colored folk can't just be running all the time, there comes a time when you got to stand up and defend your rights." If the residents of Rosewood were to abandon their land, they would also have to abandon their community, their status in the world. For Sylvester and others, their landowner status is worth dying for, because it is something that they have earned and something from which their pride stems. When the town of Rosewood is destroyed and its story is buried, the residents of Sumner are finally put in a position in which they are the richest men in the area. Their active erasure of the powerful black members of Rosewood is spurred on by the racial and economic history put forth by the white residents.

[4] The white community is largely monolithic in the film -- there are very few white characters who stand out enough to even warrant a name, despite what Singleton may claim. What results is a white solidarity that serves as an agent of silencing. Interestingly, the process of silencing is based on spectacle. The image of a lynched body requires an audience in order to have its power as a symbol of white supremacy, but the spectacle itself serves as a warning. The spectacle thus becomes the silencer. This silencing hinges on the use of performative violence (i.e. lynching) to keep black communities in check. This perpetual circle of silencing and spectacle is best exemplified in the mob's beating of Aaron Carrier. They savagely beat him and threaten to lynch him in order to compel him to share whatever information he may know (though it is without a doubt that they were planning to lynch him anyway). The violence in the film is a direct result of a series of willing miscommunications, of a group speaking over the voice of an individual, effectively rendering singular voices as mute. When John Wright tells the mob to loosen the noose so that Aaron may relay whatever he needs to say, Duke Purdy raucously retorts, "He don't need to talk, Johnny, he need to hang from one of them trees over there." The mob uses violence as a way to punish a reticence to talk, but, in reality, they do not want to hear what their victims have to say. Black bodies are simultaneously put on public display as subjects of cruel spectacle and erased from public memory. The body may be gone, but the hatred towards it remains.

[5] Children are employed to encompass the over-arching struggle between cultivating a tradition of racism and erasing marginalized history. More than a little clumsily, Singleton uses the children as a way of providing a better hope for the future but also as blank canvasses upon which racism is imprinted. Emmitt Purdy, put in the position to hold the rope around Aaron Carrier's neck, is told "Be a man, now." To the white mob, masculinity is tied in with accepting a tradition of violence. Whereas Emmitt simply wants to play with his best friend Arnett, he is unwillingly forced into a culture of racialized hatred. When he leaves home at the end of the film, his father tells him, "I just want what's best for you, learn you how to live in the world!" Through leaving, it is suggested that Emmitt is rejecting the instructive racism that permeates his home culture; though the presentation of his escape lacks substance, it puts forth the hope that as the new generation of the South develops, it too will cast off the white shroud of silence and spectacle, racism and fear.

[6] The silencing is a re-inflicting of the violence of the Rosewood Massacre, and the erasure surrounding Rosewood is in stark juxtaposition with the need to pass along racism as a tradition. The issues of erasure in the film play into a larger debate about how systems of silencing function and who has the right and the power to recover a purposefully erased past. In his essay on the "right to forget," Gregory Streich states, "Because history is both interpreted and remembered, our interpretations differ depending on whether our social group was/is a beneficiary or recipient of historical injustice, discrimination, and oppression" (525-26), meaning that if those telling history are institutionally privileged, that history will lack the experience of the voices that are devoid of privilege. The recounting and structuring of history serves to further validate those doing the structuring. The meta-history created by this structuring thus lacks the nuance of marginalized voices and is more of a myth creation than a retelling of past events. Streich goes on to say that "justice in the present requires us to remember historical injustices and recognize how they continue to shape identities and structure in the present" (526). The only way to overcome historical blindness is to identify the mechanisms that create it and the bodies that enforce it.

[7] I, along with a plethora of film critics and historians, would argue that the creation of Mann is the largest failure of the film. In order to include a love story and a clear-cut hero, Singleton sells out the real residents of Rosewood. With Mann, the recovery of history is cheapened by projecting the ideals and the signifiers of the American western onto the real events of Rosewood. The American western moments serve no purpose other than to glorify such traits as masculinity and strength. Jamie Barlowe suggest that "Singleton's intertextual dialogue is with history, with the continuing fear and despair he felt in the 1990s accounts by the survivors of Rosewood, and with a film history which has fully excluded such black heroes" (38), but the black hero he indeed creates is simply furthering a prescribed ideal masculinity most commonly embodied by white actors. Many sources note that Mann is a composite of the real-life Sylvester Carrier and any cinematic American gunslinger. But why did Singleton feel it necessary to include an ancillary masculine character and to further personify the American Western ideal? Is Mann serving as a critique of the utilization of cowboys and the hypermasculinity generally associated with them, or is he further reifying that trope of the masculine white conqueror? Singleton had a chance to use the western elements as a way to nod towards other state-sanctioned brutality against marginalized bodies, namely Native American, but he squandered that chance, instead opting to reiterate tired cinematic tropes.

[8] The film successfully manages to re-embody beings that are doubly destroyed through repressive violence and repressive history. On a physical level as well as a narrative level, parts are made whole again. Collective group narratives, much like the town of Rosewood, are burnt to the ground by a white monolith and buried under the weight of their own ashes. Though there are certainly problematic aspects of Singleton's film, there is a great importance in recovering a past that has been purposefully kept out of the light. We as a society must face the chilling reality that if it were not for the concerted efforts of a handful of survivors, journalists, and filmmakers, this story of sanctioned violence, of small-scale genocide, would have faded entirely from the collective American consciousness. Thus, storytellers and their audiences must be aware of how their presentations affect the discourse -- or lack thereof -- surrounding a marginalized history.