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Stirring Up Old Terrors Unforgotten

This is a menu of the topics on this page (click on any): February 19, 1997, Wednesday    
Stirring Up Old Terrors Unforgotten     By BERNARD WEINRAUB    .

February 19, 1997, Wednesday

Stirring Up Old Terrors Unforgotten


John Singleton said he would never forget Minnie Lee Langley's fear and courage as she told him about the murderous rage she had witnessed as a child more than 70 years ago in Rosewood, Fla.

Mr. Singleton, the 29-year-old director of such films as ''Boyz N the Hood'' and ''Poetic Justice,'' said the financial and emotional pressures of making his newest movie, ''Rosewood,'' had left him so drained that he might have walked away from the project except for the memory of Miss Langley.

The film, which opens on Friday, deals with the slayings of a group of blacks in the Gulf Coast mill town of Rosewood, Fla., in 1923 by whites from neighboring Sumner. The rampage was set off by a white woman's false accusation that she had been assaulted by a black stranger. Within days Rosewood had been burned to the ground.

''There were times I wanted to quit,'' Mr. Singleton said. ''I knew I had to honor this subject. I knew I couldn't make a bad movie. But this was so daunting. And there were fights with the studio about money and wanting to make this a big movie. And I wanted to quit. I was, like, I don't want to do this. And then Minnie Lee Langley passed away.''

Ms. Langley, who died just before filming began early last year, was 9 when the terror took place. ''She told me how she hid in the marshes with the other black kids as the white posse hunted them like animals,'' Mr. Singleton, seated in a restaurant in Santa Monica, said the other day. ''Here was a woman in her mid-80's and you could see the fear and trepidation that she still had. And she was brave. She testified as an elderly woman in front of the State Legislature, which took tremendous courage on her part.

''I went to her funeral and that gave me energy, because all these people were there talking about her courage, and I thought, I've got to keep going here. I've got to do it, just do it, and fight to do it, because this story should be told.''

The slayings in predominantly black Rosewood, which are still surrounded by some mystery, were virtually unknown until 1982, when Gary Moore, a reporter for The St. Petersburg Times, began working on an article about the area. He noted that there were no black residents and asked why.

Soon, with the help of old newspaper clippings and interviews, he tracked down survivors of the killings, many of them ashamed that they had been victimized and still afraid that their lives might be threatened.

At least six blacks and two whites were killed in the rampage. Black families fled through the swamps as the prosperous town was burned to the ground. Mr. Singleton said he believed the number of dead was probably far higher.

Three years ago the Florida Legislature offered reparations to the survivors of Rosewood and their families. Two months ago a documentary about Rosewood, produced by ABC News and the Discovery Channel, was broadcast on Discovery.

Mr. Singleton's film, written by Gregory Poirier and based loosely on the facts, stars Ving Rhames as a black World War I veteran who comes to Rosewood to start a new life and Jon Voight as the lone white shopkeeper in town who helps black women and children flee.

Mr. Singleton said he had spoken to about five survivors of the violence who were, of course, young children at the time. ''They remembered it vividly and they're still frightened,'' he said.

Throughout the making of ''Rosewood,'' Mr. Singleton pressed Warner Brothers for more money. Jon Peters, the producer, admitted that he as well as Warner Brothers were nervous about the box-office prospects for the movie, which cost about $28 million.

''It's the riskiest film I've ever done,'' said Mr. Peters, who, with a former partner, Peter Guber, produced such movies as ''Batman'' and ''Rainman.'' ''If it's not sold right, it'll do nothing. Hopefully people will embrace it.''

By all accounts the film would probably not have been made without Mr. Peters's involvement and his clout with Warner Brothers, which in recent years has focused on big action-adventures and comedies. He acquired the rights to the Rosewood survivors' stories after seeing television news reports about the Florida Legislature's decision and seeing a segment about the killings on ''60 Minutes.''

''What appealed to me was that these people had no voice, there were no grave sites, no records, very little about what happened,'' he said. ''It was a chance to make a contemporary movie. I didn't want to make a popcorn movie.''

Though Warner Brothers is nervous about the commercial prospects for the bleak movie, which was trimmed to 2 hours and 20 minutes from 3 hours, Mr. Peters noted that Gerald Levin, the chairman of Time Warner, showed ''Rosewood'' to members of Congress last week.

It was an unusual gesture. ''It's seen, I hope, as an important movie,'' said Mr. Peters, who has gained a reputation as one of Hollywood's more flamboyant producers. ''And for me, it's an opportunity to do something good.'' Mr. Singleton said that in making ''Rosewood,'' he had been especially influenced by Steven Spielberg's ''Schindler's List.'' Mr. Singleton went so far as to enlist John Williams, who composed the music for the Spielberg film, to write the score for ''Rosewood.''

''I loved the way Spielberg structured his scenes and the way he used music and how he didn't make his antagonists one-dimensional,'' he said. ''Even the Ralph Fiennes Nazi character was deeper, three-dimensional. And I didn't want to make the white characters all fire-breathing racists and the black characters holier-than-thou, just singing in church and not shooting back when they're shot at.''

Surprisingly, Mr. Singleton said that finding actors, black or white, for ''Rosewood'' was not especially easy. ''Black and white actors were afraid because of the subject matter and because we didn't have a whole lot of money,'' he said. ''On the whole, people in this town don't like to make too much of a wave and are not inclined to do anything of depth.''

Mr. Singleton grew up in a middle-class home in south-central Los Angeles, and attended the University of Southern California Film School. His debut film at the age of 23, ''Boyz N the Hood,'' earned him the distinction of being the youngest person -- and the first African-American -- ever nominated for an Academy Award as best director. Since that film he has been offered numerous scripts, many without racial themes.

''My greatest fear is winding up a hack -- you know, 'Let me read 25 scripts and see if something interests me,' '' he said. ''I have to find something that I have in my heart and soul that I want to spend two years on, usually with a lot of angst.''

He said that the depiction of blacks in films remained troubling, and that some of the fault rested with black film makers. ''It's commerce, everything is commerce,'' he said. ''I mean there are black film makers trying to get paid just like white film makers. And not everybody comes to the table in a certain way in which they feel they have a responsibility to do anything except make a profit.''

For his next film, Mr. Singleton is planning a remake of ''Shaft,'' about the suave black private eye in New York. There were three successful ''Shaft'' films, starring Richard Roundtree, from 1971 to 1973.

''I want to get away from real people, real events, real tragedy,'' Mr. Singleton said with a smile. ''That's been a very heavy responsibility.''

Copyright 2001 The New York Times Company

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