Jon Voight and Ving Rhames give strong performances in this uneven but unmistakably earnest film set in Florida, in 1923. Voight plays John Wright, a white shopkeeper in the predominantly black town of Rosewood. Rhames takes the role of Mann, a World War I veteran who wants to settle in a town where blacks are prospering.
Trouble starts when Fannie Taylor (Catherine Kellner), a housewife in the neighboring white town of Sumner, claims that she was beaten and raped by a black stranger. Fannie’s lie becomes an excuse for Sumner’s residents to lynch blacks and burn Rosewood to the ground. It is John who helps Mann get a few black women and children to safety.
Amazingly, the story is based on fact. The tragedy of Rosewood was kept secret until the 1980s. TV’s 60 Minutes helped to expose the truth and to pass a 1994 Florida bill giving reparations to the families of Rosewood survivors. Though Hollywood hyperbolizes the Gregory Poirier script — Mann is a fictional character — John Singleton (Boyz N the Hood) directs the film with riveting urgency. Split reaction to the O.J. Simpson verdicts is just one symptom of America’s continuing racial divide. At its best, Rosewood touches a still-raw nerve.