On the morning of January 1, 1923, a young, white woman, named Fannie Taylor, reported that she had been attacked in her home by a black man. In reality, Fannie Taylor had been beaten by her white lover, but the white community of Sumner, Florida, believed her report of the incident, and news quickly spread that Fannie Taylor had been attacked, as well as raped, by a black man. The general feelings of negativity towards African-Americans, coupled with struggling economic times, led to an escalation of violent events in the town of Rosewood, Florida, during the first week of January, 1923. Whites quickly formed a mob, which acted violently and destructively against the innocent blacks of Rosewood.
The entire sequence of events of the Rosewood Massacre lasted just over a month – from January 1, 1923 through February 15, 1923 – yet its effects upon the survivors and families are still felt today. No one was charged for any of the murders, and the case was laid to rest until Florida investigative reporter Gary Moore exposed the atrocities in 1982. It was not until 1994 that survivors and their families were awarded monetary compensation via the Florida Legislature’s signing of The Rosewood Bill (Goodloe).
As the true story of Rosewood was exposed in the early 1990’s, it gained media coverage by various newspapers, magazines, and television shows such as 60 Minutes. In 1994, Peters Entertainment gained the rights to the Rosewood story and began to develop a motion picture. Peters hired young, African-American director John Singleton, who had previously produced films that examined racial injustice in America. Singleton recounts: “I've always had this strong aversion to the South as it pertains to people of African descent. It evokes so many negative images -- slavery, whipping, bodies hanging on trees -- that I never thought I would approach any subjects on film that would deal with anything Southern.” Singleton grew up in South Central Los Angeles, which he had used as the setting of his 1991 film, Boyz in the Hood. “But when I read [about the massacre], I was intrigued by the stories of the individual people who had lived in Rosewood . . . I found it hard to put them out of my mind.”
Released in 1997, Singleton’s Rosewood was not a blockbuster hit. It is an uncomfortable account of white supremacy and the dehumanization of African-Americans. Singleton acknowledges the discomfort that Rosewood evokes: “Ours [the American people’s] is a morbid history; most of us try to evade it. Black people don't want to remember being the victims of lynching, rape, the separation of families, living under Jim Crow and all the horrors those things entailed. And white folks don't want to remember being the perpetrators of that kind of persecution.” Claiming that Rosewood was made for the Rosewood survivors – to tell their story that had been silenced for so long, Singleton was heavily condemned by survivors and film critics alike, for his incorporation of a fictional, heroic character into the film. Mr. Mann (Ving Rhames) was not a member of the 1923 Rosewood community, and he emerges as a John Wayne type character who rides in to save the day.
Aside from the purely fictional character of Mr. Mann and a few debated inconsistencies in the storyline, Rosewood offers an account of true historical figures and true historical events. Judging from its 1994 screenplay and 1997 release, it’s reasonable to believe that the screenplay was written primarily using A Documented History of the Massacre which occurred at Rosewood, Florida, in January 1923 (Jones 1993). Since the Rosewood Massacre was silenced for so long, data such as the actual death toll is still unknown. Also, there is a discrepancy as to whether or not there was a mass grave at Rosewood as depicted in the film. Surely, there are also discrepancies as expressed by whites versus blacks of the families of those involved at Rosewood. The truth regarding the events was taken to the graves with those who were killed in January 1923. Because of its neglected place in American history, Rosewood possesses great influence as a medium through which the American people can begin to understand and acknowledge the racial injustice of a nation that steadfastly claims to be one of “liberty and justice for all.”