The film was favorably reviewed by many critics, more than any John Singleton film since Boyz n the Hood. The film was not a commercial success, and it was unable to recoup its $30 million budget at the box office. The film was entered into the 47th Berlin International Film Festival.
Mann is a mysterious World War I veteran who is scouting out land to buy. He comes to the town of Rosewood, a small predominantly black town in Florida. Rosewood is home to the Carriers, an upwardly mobile black family, helmed by Aunt Sarah and her proud, headstrong son, Sylvester. Mann soon meets Beulah "Scrappie" Carrier, Sylvester's younger sister and the two quickly fall in love.
Aunt Sarah works as a housekeeper for James Taylor and his wife, Fanny, a white couple who live in the neighboring town of Sumter. Fanny, who has a history of cuckolding her husband, has a rendezvous with her lover while her husband is at work. Fanny argues with her lover, who ends up beating her. Aunt Sarah and her granddaughter, Lee Ruth, overhear the argument and subsequent beating but do not intervene. A distraught Fanny, despairing of explaining her injuries to her husband, leaves her house and calls for help. She then tells several townspeople that she has been attacked by a black man. The white residents readily believe Fanny's claim. Hearing of an escaped black convict, a posse from Sumner and nearby towns go to Rosewood to investigate. The black residents of Rosewood quickly become targeted by a white mob, including men from out of state and members of the Ku Klux Klan.
As a stranger, Mann is afraid of being accused and subsequently lynched. He plans to leave town over the protests of several Rosewood residents who have met in church to discuss plans to defend their community. Outside the church, Mann clashes with John Wright, the owner of a general store, one of the few white residents of Rosewood. Wright is also engaging in a torrid extramarital affair with Jewel, a black woman. Mann then leaves.
When the posse arrives at the Carrier home, Aunt Sarah attempts to placate the angry crowd. However, when she announces that Fanny Taylor's attacker had been a white man, someone in the crowd shoots her. She subsequently dies of her injuries. The posse comes and Sylvester shoots and kills them. After Aunt Sarah's murder, the posse launches an outright assault on Rosewood. Mann is on his way out of town when he witnesses the lynching of Sam Carter, the blacksmith. Changing his mind about leaving, Mann returns to Rosewood to fight alongside the residents. Some white men who live in Rosewood help black Rosewood residents escape. Railroad conductors smuggled people out of town on trains. Wright asks the train conductors to pick up the women and children while his wife hides several other African-Americans in their home. Other whites attempt to squelch the rising violence with little success.
The posse swells in number. Believing that James Carrier held information about the escaped convict, they seek him out. After making an unsuccessful attempt to intervene on James' behalf, Wright reluctantly allows Sheriff Walker take Carrier into custody because the officer said he only wanted to question him. When Carrier says he doesn't have any information, he is immediately shot by one of the mob. Wright gets upset and the mob accuses him of being soft on blacks.
The violence escalates and spills out into neighboring towns. But when the posse get to the border of Alachua County, a group of armed white men block the roads and turn them back. Surviving members of the Carrier family eventually escape. Scrappie and Mann finally share a kiss before Mann departs with Sylvester. The two plan to meet up later. After the violence eventually dies down, James confronts Fanny, telling her that "they haven't caught your nigger yet." Realizing that Fanny has lied to him about the true cause of her injuries and had affairs with other men, James beats her. Officially the death toll was eight people total, two whites and six blacks. Other accounts by survivors and several African-American newspapers were of a higher toll.Ving Rhames as Mann
Don Cheadle as Sylvester Carrier
Jon Voight as John Wright
Bruce McGill as Duke Purdy
Loren Dean as James Taylor
Esther Rolle as Aunt Sarah
Elise Neal as Beulah (Scrappie)
Bridgid Coulter as Gertrude
Robert Patrick as Fanny's lover
Michael Rooker as Sheriff Walker
Catherine Kellner as Fanny Taylor
Akosua Busia as Jewel
Paul Benjamin as James Carrier
Kevin Jackson as Sam Carter
Mark Boone Junior as Poly
Muse Watson as Henry Andrews
Badja Djola as John Bradley
Kathryn Meisle as Mary Wright
Jaimz Woolvett as Deputy Earl
Vanessa Baden as Lee-Ruth
Andrew "JR" Tarver as The Preacher
Minnie Lee Langley, a survivor, served as a source for the set designers, and Arnett Doctor, son of a survivor, was hired as a consultant. Recreated sets of the towns of Rosewood and Sumner were built in Central Florida, far away from Levy County, where the events took place. The film version, written by screenwriter Gregory Poirier, created a character named Mann, who enters Rosewood as a type of reluctant Western-style hero. Composites of historic figures were used as characters, and the film offers the possibility of a happy ending.
Asked about why he decided to tackle this subject, Singleton said: "I had a very deep—I wouldn't call it fear—but a deep contempt for the South because I felt that so much of the horror and evil that black people have faced in this country is rooted here ... So in some ways this is my way of dealing with the whole thing."
Rosewood was well received by the majority of critics and currently holds an 85% "Fresh" rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Roger Ebert gives the film 3.5 stars out of four, stating that "... What makes it more is the way it shows how racism breeds and feeds, and is taught by father to son. ... it's not easily summarized in ads and does not obviously appeal to either blacks (since it documents such a depressing chapter) or whites (depicted as murderous or ineffectual). Perhaps it will appeal to people looking for a well-made film that tells a gripping, important story. Now there's a notion."
Stanley Crouch of The New York Times described Rosewood as Singleton's finest work, writing, "Never in the history of American film had Southern racist hysteria been shown so clearly. Color, class and sex were woven together on a level that Faulkner would have appreciated." This is a different take than whether Singleton accurately represented events at Rosewood.
E.R. Shipp in The New York Times suggests that Singleton's youth and his background in California contributed to his willingness to take on the story of Rosewood. He notes Singleton's rejection of the image of blacks as victims and portrayal of "an idyllic past in which black families are intact, loving and prosperous, and a black superhero who changes the course of history when he escapes the noose, takes on the mob with double-barreled ferocity and saves many women and children from death". Shipp commented on Singleton's creating a fictional account of Rosewood events, saying that the film "assumes a lot and then makes up a lot more". The film version alludes to many more deaths than the highest counts by eyewitnesses. Journalist Gary Moore, who reported the events in 1982, breaking open decades of silence, believed that Singleton's creating Mann, an outside character who inspires the citizens of Rosewood to fight back, was condescending to survivors. He also criticized the inflated death toll, saying the film was "an interesting experience in illusion".