The Looking Glass

The Looking Glass

The Department of Psychology


Dr. Stuart Fischoff

Rosewood is a movie everyone should see. But they won't. Some Blacks will. But not enough. Some Whites will. But not enough to make it a successful, cross-over film.

Rosewood is a docudrama about a small, vibrant Black community which was destroyed in 1923 by resentful, poor Whites from a nearby dirtwater town. A rumor that a White woman had been beaten and raped by a Black man ignited a rage that was scouring the shadows of irrationality, waiting for a reason to explode. And explode it did. When the murderous riot was over, when the dust and smoke had cleared, nothing was left of Rosewood but a scar on the earth.

It is a story about jealous, racist outrage and its horrible byproducts -- torching and lynching. The rumor was the excuse. The truth was that the Whites, who had less, resented the Blacks who had more, who had, perhaps, more faith and more hope for the future, and perhaps more elan vital. More what didn't seem to matter. It was just more.

And it is a story about Rosewood's citizens, their suffering and their losses. Everyone, all races, should see it. Few are, few will.

The trouble with movies we should see is that they are rarely movies we want to see. Rosewood is not the first docudrama which was made with high moral purpose, low budget and dedicated writers, actors, producers and directors that is a failure at the box office. Mississippi Burning and Ghosts of Mississippi both had weak ticket sales.

Yet, the mini-series Roots was wildly successful. More recently, another "message" movie, Schindler's List, succeeded. It was a message movie we knew we "should" see...and we did see.

Why the difference? Steven Spielberg per se is not the answer. He failed with An American Tale, which also addressed the Holocaust, albeit allegorically. Budget is also a non-factor. Witness the successful, low-budget film, Boyz N' the Hood (same director as Rosewood, John Singleton). The answer may be in both the psychological motivation for seeing a movie and the psychological impact of a movie.

Research is laser-precise on the matter of movie goer motivation -- entertainment! But, entertainment does not only mean "fun," "relaxing," or "thrilling." Entertaining films can be intellectually stimulating (Lone Star), dramatically engaging (Platoon) or tearfully, romantically glorious (Like Water for Chocolate). The bottom line is, if people do not anticipate some sort of satisfying emotional experience, they won't go.

Even for stalwart, socially-conscious, cross-over movie goers, "should" is not always enough to get them into the theaters. If they are going to be put through the emotional ringer and experience the pain of watching the worst that humanity has to offer, they must believe that some good will come out of a "should" film beyond the history lesson of recounting "the horror."

Rosewood's fatal flaw is that it ignores this principle of audience motivation and film impact. It is as if the message, the "shouldness" of its story is an end which justifies its means. It does not. It cannot. And it never will.

Like Rosewood, Schindler's List was a movie which covered familiar bloody ground -- inhumanity. But the filmmakers took a different tack. Instead of following the obscene destruction of a people at the hands of evil, they made their focal point the harrowing heroism of a man who transcends himself. Schindler's List is a story of the triumph of the human spirit, despite the fact that Schindler was the rare exception, despite the fact that saving thousands of lives was a puny number compared to the loss of six million, despite it all, it was still a victory for we, the viewers, and powerfully uplifting.

The "we will uplift you" Hollywoodized ending of Rosewood is a train rescue of several dozen women and children by a Rambo-like Black hero and three sympathetic White men. Psychologically and dramatically, it was too little, too late.

It was ineffective, too small to overcome the amount of misery I had witnessed and the magnitude of the pain I had seen and felt. Rather than feeling uplifted when I left the theater, I felt bludgeoned.

Moreover, the particulars of Rosewood's tragedy did not noticeably deepen the general knowledge I had of the shame of this nation's mistreatment of Blacks. And, while the film did cover the issues of good and evil and motivation, it skirted the surface. The complex and reluctant heroism or cowardice of the few Whites was overwhelmed by the one-dimensional and unenlightening ugliness of most of the film's villains. Even if, sometimes, real villainy is crude and simplistic, for the audience to profit from the exposure, it must learn about the villainy which resides in its collective self, an ugly shadow potential which, as we sit and watch, sets off unwelcome, even embarrassing resonance. Then, and only then, can screen villainy provide more than mere distancing of ourselves from the dark side in all of us.

In the final analysis, for an experientially painful film to succeed psychologically and to successfully reach a large audience, it must either cover an issue which has existentially broad appeal (i.e. the specifics illuminate the universal, or it must be exceptional in its execution at all levels of creative input). But most important, people must leave the theater feeling pumped up, not beaten up. They must feel that they have learned something they didn't already know or have a deeper understanding of what was previously only vaguely grasped. You cannot offer what they know too well and do not wish to visit again unless the agony is worth the price of admission.

Ving Rhames and Elise Neal
in the Warner Bros. release, ROSEWOOD.

Prepared -- This edition update by

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