Legendary filmmaker John Singleton was laid to rest this week after he passed away at the age of 51. Naturally, it has many reflecting on his filmography. For me, I’m specifically thinking about his most important film.
We know Singleton’s most famous works: Boyz n the Hood, Poetic Justice and the under-appreciated Higher Learning, a film that still rings true—just visit any predominately white college or university. But to my mind, his magnum opus came next, a film that will probably not be deeply discussed in the wake of his going to be with the ancestors, but should.
Rosewood, released in 1997, dramatizes the 1923 massacre of an all-black town in Florida. John Singleton, at the height of his powers, shines a light on something that has been kept in the dark for too long, centering themes that are as timeless as racism in America.
We know the story. An economically struggling white town is next to an economically prosperous black town. A white woman in the white town is viciously attacked in her home by a man with whom she is having an affair, and instead of allowing her husband to discover the truth, she blames it on a black man, starting a chain of events that leads to white folks destroying the all-black town.
This is Singleton’s best, most mature work. Instead of judging this woman for her misdeeds, he is intentional about exploring the way patriarchy simultaneously deifies her as a victim of domestic violence while still viewing her through the lens of misogynistic suspicion. And despite the fact that few people believe what she says (characters say as much toward the end of the film), they still use her claims as an excuse to engage in brutal violence against the black people in the film. White people are viewed as a destructive, colonizing force—they only used her claim as a reason to unleash it.
That story resonated with me. The fact that a black man would be accused of sexual assault by a white woman is something I was warned about as a kid. From the age of 15 until I went off to college, my grandmother would tell me to “leave those white girls alone.” They “had a history of screaming rape” if things went wrong, she warned me. This was the first film I’d ever seen that dramatized this black urban legend to great effect—but that is not all Singleton wanted to say.
Esther Rolle gives the best performance in the film as Aunt Sara. If a white woman had played a role with as much conviction, this performance would have garnered, at least, an Academy Award nomination. She sees what happens, knows the truth and remains quiet. When she finally speaks the truth, she is shot, killed on her porch.
Singleton masterfully shows us how the psychological trauma of racism unwittingly causes black folks to participate in and internalize the violence that is visited upon us. In his portrayal of Aunt Sara, Singleton shows us how many of our matriarchs went to their graves holding the secrets of the white families they worked for and how those secrets can hurt and, at times, kill. A great deal of research has been done that explores how hypertension, cancer and other ailments are the result of this internalization.
Rosewood is not a perfect film. The performances from some of the young actors in the cast leave much to be desired, and the movie could have been about 10 minutes shorter. But those are small quibbles. I simply do not understand how a film like Django Unchained was so successful while this shorter, more thoughtful film lost money at the box office. Perhaps it was because the former was a fantasy that did not indict white viewers while the latter told a story that happened all too often (especially during the Red Summer of 1919), and did not let its white viewers off the hook. America has not truly dealt with the race massacres that happened far too often early in the 20th century, and this filmmaker, aware of that, did his part to raise awareness.