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MOVIES | On Location

Dredging in the Deep South

John Singleton digs into the story of Rosewood, a town burned by a lynch mob in 1923, and exorcises a few personal demons.

June 30, 1996|Jordan Levin | Jordan Levin, based in Miami, is an occasional contributor to Calendar

APOPKA, Fla. — The raccoon is a little shy, peering out from high in the tree, then squirreling his way down to sniff tentatively closer to director John Singleton, who--rapt, smiling, coaxing--is holding out a bit of food. He is sitting in the central Florida woods just northwest of Orlando, for the moment ignoring the ticks and the chiggers and the mosquitoes and the rattlesnakes, as well as the cast and crew assembled for the night shoot.

"Hey, Arnett!" Singleton calls. "Look at this!"

He is addressing Arnett Doctor, whose mother was burned out of the small black town of Rosewood, Fla., in the real-life version of the story Singleton has come here to film. "I do believe this is changing him," Doctor whispers. Then, grinning, he calls back, "That's some good eating there, John!" The raccoon seems to get the message and scurries back up the tree.

Singleton grimaces. "Eating!" he says with a shudder.

"I love it here," Singleton says later. "All the wildlife. If you were here in the daytime, you could see the spring--it's crystal-clear--and you can see snapping turtles." He reclines in the seat of his dark green Toyota Land Cruiser. It's almost midnight in the second-to-last week of shooting on "Rosewood," the end of a month of night shoots, and Singleton is tired. His voice is so low it almost disappears.

"Yeah, it's all been like a camping trip," he says sarcastically.

Tackling this story of racism gone burning wild in the heart of the South has been considerably more than a nature excursion for him. "I had a very deep--I wouldn't call it fear--but a deep contempt for the South," Singleton continues, "because I felt that so much of the horror and evil that black people have faced in this country is rooted here. I thought, 'I'll never make a movie in the South. [Expletive] the South.' So in some ways this is my way of dealing with the whole thing."

*

In the first week of 1923, Rosewood was attacked and burned by a white lynch mob after a white woman in the neighboring town of Sumner claimed a black drifter had attacked her. Rosewood's residents, many of them prosperous, independent property owners, fled homeless into the swamps.

The incident made headlines across the country. "Many Die in Florida Race War," said the Miami Daily Metropolis. "Kill Six in Florida," announced the New York Times. But then it dropped out of history as completely as the town itself disappeared from the landscape; as with a hidden cancer or a childhood rape, the survivors--traumatized, fearful and enraged--kept silent.

Then, in 1982, a St. Petersburg Times reporter dug up the story. Doctor, whose mother, Philomena, was one of those who fled, pulled survivors and descendants together for a reparations lawsuit that led the Florida Legislature to award them $2.1 million in 1994. That same year, producer Jon Peters saw a story about the town on CBS' "60 Minutes," contacted Doctor and bought the rights. Now Warner Bros. and Singleton are putting a Hollywood spotlight onto what was once a horrifying secret.

One of Doctor's distant cousins is playing his mother as a child, and Singleton is feeding raccoons in the woods, digging for the wellsprings of racism. There's a spine-tingling sense of history hovering over this movie, as if the ghosts of Rosewood are peering hopefully around the palmettos.

Everyone involved, from stars to production assistants, seems to sense that gaze from the past, to believe that they're involved in something important, something real. "I feel that we are witnesses, almost like survivors are witnesses, because of the depth of our identification with this thing," says Jon Voight, who plays John Wright, the storekeeper who was the town's only white resident. "Obviously we could never stand in the same shoes. But in some way, because we've chosen to immerse ourselves in this story, we have that feeling."

Which is a weighty one. Doctor--a gentle-voiced, dignified man of 54 who has devoted most of his life to Rosewood and who serves as an executive consultant on the film--says that when Singleton came to Florida to meet with the dozen or so elderly survivors, one of them told him: "Son, you were chosen to do this movie by God. So don't try to take anything from it or add a whole lot to it. Just do the movie. It'll take care of itself."

Singleton lowers his eyes and exhales at the memory of that moment. "I just took a deep breath," he says. "I was proud about it. After meeting the survivors, it was a lock. I definitely wanted to make the movie."

Tracy Barone, the film's executive producer and president of Peters Entertainment, thinks that had a profound effect on Singleton. "When you hear these people and witness what they go through emotionally in order to re-create the story, it's a very powerful experience," she says by phone from Los Angeles. "I think that cemented something in him that was greater than just the telling of this movie. It was a commitment to these people."

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