I wasn’t sure what to expect from Rosewood (1997), a film directed by John Singleton about the 1923 Rosewood massacre, since there aren’t many images of the film online — but I knew the plot sounded fascinating, and the fact that Ruth E. Carter designed the costumes meant that these would be well done. I was right — it’s a great movie, although not an easy watch, and Carter’s costumes ARE spot on.
The Rosewood massacre took place in the small town of Rosewood, Florida, a primarily African American town, in 1923. A mob killed as many as 157 people after a white woman claimed she was raped by a Black man. The film introduces fictional characters, particularly Mann (Ving Rhames, whose arms are a thing of beauty in this), a drifter who becomes involved in things. It really takes its time, setting up the fact that this town was actually quite prosperous, and whites and Blacks may have lived in separate towns but were still living shared lives in many cases. As the film unfolds, you see tragedy build, and you get to witness many of the horrific aspects of lynchings, like the fact that they were treated as a party by many.
Ruth E. Carter talked about how making the film was a very personal experience, and how it felt like making a documentary, and both things show. She does a great job showing the range of characters through clothing, and gets so many of the details of early 1920s everyday wear spot-on.
I did some screencapping, since again, not many images online, and I’d like to talk about some of the different characters. As per usual, there’s more to discuss in the women’s costumes than the men’s.
Mann (Ving Rhames) gets a dramatic long coat that sets him apart from most of the other male characters:
Aunt Sarah (Esther Rolle) is the matriarch of her family. She’s quite up-to-date in her clothing styles, which suit her figure so beautifully:
Scrappie (Elise Neal) is a 17-year-old school teacher and one of the focal characters:
Sylvester (Don Cheadle) is a successful music teacher; the son of Sarah and brother (or cousin?) of Scrappie.
Sylvester’s wife, Gertrude (Bridgid Coulter):
Jewel (Akosua Busia), Sylvester’s cousin, who works for the one white man in town (Jon Voigt, whose character is in a complicated position):
Fanny (Catherine Kellner) is the white woman who claims rape.
Mary, the wife of the white storeowner:
And just a few random women:
Have you seen Rosewood? What did you think?
Oh we watched this in high school. I remember being fascinated by it. I definitely need to rewatch it!
Thanks for bringing this to light… I think it’s a good reminder that plenty of people have been working to tell these stories for a long time. I was 11 in 1997 so I have no idea if it got a lot of attention at the time or not, but while I’m not sure I’m up for it right now, I’ll keep an eye out for it. Looks like it was done with a lot of care and, as you noted, great costumes by the amazing Ruth Carter.
I only caught the tail end of the movie on TV. Did see artifacts from Rosewood the town in the African American History Museum in DC.
I read an article a few months ago about how for a long time no one remembered this even happened because all the survivors of the massacre tried to never speak of it again. They didn’t want to have to relive the memories of what happened and so it sort of slipped out of the general consciousness for 70 years. I think I would have to be in the right mental headspace to watch this but it looks really well done so I’ll have to give it a try sometime.
Wow, what a painful detail.
Yes, I saw this movie not long after it came it. It still stays with me, and often when I talk about race relations, I allude to and quote this movie. It was interesting to read that Ruth Carter felt that this project was both personal and documentary. When I watched this movie, everything looked just right like peeking into old family photo albums. John Singleton gave a lecture at my college years ago, and he was particularly proud of Rosewood. This is a movie that definitely deserves to be more widely seen.
The Rosewood massacre was a terrible, terrible thing. As for the movie, I could live with the fictional black hero but it was monumentally unfair to turn a white man who protected black people from the lynchers into a villain.