This is a review of "Rosewood" and "Higher Learning", two films by John Singleton. The weaker of the two, "Rosewood" takes place during the 1923 race riots of Rosewood, Florida. Structured as a western, the film watches as an archetypal "Man With No Name" (Ving Rhames, literally playing a character called Mann) enters Rosewood, only to find the town's predominantly African American population living on edge with a white minority who rule with guns, badges and a bucket full of resentment.
A single incident sets the town alight: a young woman blames a black stranger for the vicious beating she received from her white husband. "He was so big!" she screams. "He was so black!" The news spreads. Local white folk begin assembling. Pretty soon a carnival atmosphere develops, whites arming themselves, getting liquored up and commencing the slaughtering of blacks. Charred corpses hang from trees, houses burn and bullets fly.
Though it pretends to be "serious" and "historical", "Rosewood" is mostly a silly cartoon. Singleton creates an African American Eden, one which would have flourished had it not been for the white man. Whites are themselves portrayed as lecherous, stupid and one dimensional. One character, played by Jon Voight, is our token "nuanced white". He's a rich landowner, sleazy, but eventually learns to "do the right thing". Elsewhere Singleton consciously reverses common African American stereotypes: all the white families are oversexed, violent, carnal or single parents. The black families, in contrast, are torn straight out of Norman Rockwell paintings, celebrating birthdays, always surrounded by a warm glow or sitting at big, family meals. Later, Mann becomes a Biblical figure, a Moses who leads surviving black folk on an exodus out of Rosewood and across a river.
Like most films "about racism", "Rosewood" has nothing to do with racism. The saviours of our victims are two landowners, the ruling class is invisible and it is specifically working class whites who are demonized. Racism, in other words, is caused by the stupid, poor, irrational lower class. But racism always has economic roots. In the US, racial policy became a means of combating worker unity by fostering conflicts and divisions between groups along racial, national, sexual or religious lines. The revitalisation of the KKK in the 1920s was itself a direct response to economic factors. Such things go back as far as the 18th century (quasi-military alliances between large corporations and governments repressed efforts to form labour unions and conduct strikes), when the ruling class pitted blacks, Indians and whites against one another to stave off insurrection. Indians, for example, were often hired as "slave catchers", whilst "strikebreakers" - workers used to replace white strikers – always came from outside the area and/or "lower" ethnic groups. This, of course, exacerbated racial tensions and disrupted communities. Where Rosewood is set, almost two generations after the abolition of slavery and the end of the American Civil War, many French Canadians, East Europeans and Africans were first introduced as strike breakers. The deliberate creation of racial and ethnic conflict was not a matter of individual employer prejudice but of capitalist class strategy. Ulimately, "Rosewood's" message is typical of all of Singleton's films: evil whites preyed on black, set them back, but now's the time for African Americans to help themselves, pull themselves up by the bootstraps, be good and earn a buck. Blacks, in other words, must now be good whites. Play the game that causes the problem and shunt the problem onto someone else.
Singleton's "Higher Learning" tells the same story, but is set in a fictional Columbus University. It contains a number of intertwined subplots and characters, the most interesting of which involves Malik Williams (Omar Epps), a black athlete who resents being forced to represent his school on the track field. The film's philosophy is articulated by Laurence Fishburne, who plays a West Indian Professor. African Americans, Fisburne essentially says, should suck it up, work hard, stop blaming people and put up with the problem. Other subplots involve shy and naive girls turning lesbian after being raped by men and a lonely confused man (Michael Rapaport, deliberately parroting DeNiro's Travis Bickle) joining a neo Nazi group. The film ends in a big, climactic orgy of blood, as most of these films do. As with Singleton's best film, "Boyz n the Hood", actor Ice Cube (and rapper Busta Rhymes) stands out. He out classes everyone. The rest of the cast overact.
While the film is right to show how racism as a system has been institutionalised within the very fabric of American social, economical, educational, and governmental institutions, and has always sought to dehumanise, devalue, and even destroy minorities and women, its ending, in which the word "unlearn" is boldly written on-screen, is completely unearned. The idea is that a "higher education" beyond "education" is the solution, that one should "unlearn" what they've been programmed to accept, but little in the film supports this theme and the statement largely comes out of left-field.
5/10 - Worth one viewing.