Rosewood Probes Racial Violence

By Fisher, Bob | American Cinematographer, February 1997 | Go to article overview

Rosewood Probes Racial Violence


Fisher, Bob, American Cinematographer


Cinematographer Johnny Jensen, ASC helps director John Singleton tell a tale of warring townships in 1920s Florida.

In his youth, Johnny E. Jensen, ASC was fascinated by the America he learned about mainly through films and Western novels. The United States seemed like the end of the rainbow for the future cinematographer, who was born and raised in Copenhagen, Denmark. Jensen might have felt differently had he been acquainted with the dark chapter in U.S. history that he has now helped to re-create in director John Singleton's film Rosewood.

The picture recounts events which occurred in 1923 Florida, where two towns, one populated by whites and the other by blacks, clashed in a brutal attack that led to as many as 60 deaths. Produced by Jon Peters for Warner Bros., Rosewood features actors Jon Voight, Ving Rhames, Michael Rooker, Esther Rolle, Elise Neal, Don Cheadle, Jaimz Woolvett and Loren Dean.

Given their respective resumes, Singleton (Boyz N the Hood, Poetic Justice, Higher Learning) and Jensen (Rambling Rose, Lost in Yonkers, Grumpy Old Men) may seem an unlikely pairing at first glance, but the two filmmakers have infused Rosewood with a sense of raw urgency, as well as an authentic period ambience.

Jensen emigrated to the United States in 1966 and found work as an auto mechanic. Six to seven months after he arrived, he answered an ad in the Los Angeles Times placed by Fouad Said, who was looking for a mechanic to keep the Cinemobile, a mini-studio on wheels, rolling. Jensen advanced from mechanic to assistant cameraman. He subsequently worked with a series of prestigious directors of photography, including Owen Roizman, ASC and the late Jordan Cronenweth, ASC.

Following are excerpts of American Cinemntographer's conversation with Jensen about the making of Rosewood.

AC: How true is Roseivood to the actual story?

Jensen: I had some initial reservations, because John Singleton wrote a [fictional] heroic character, played by Jon Voight, into the script. In retrospect, he did the right thing. Instead of making it a dark and gloomy story, he put some movie magic into the script.

Doesn't that distort the sense of history?

Jensen: That's a difficult issue, but on the other hand, if this story was overly dark in content, it probably wouldn't have had the same audience appeal. I don't think the fictional character distorted the story.

How did you prepare to shoot Rosewood!

Jensen: Production designer Paul Sylbert [One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, Heaven Can Wait, Rush] collected volumes of material, and I spent a lot of time just talking to him. I also read a lot of books, looked at many pictures, and visited the town of Rosewood, where the black population had lived. There were a few people who remembered the incident, and others who had heard stories. I also visited Sumner, the town where the whites had lived. In those days, it was a desolate area with a dying sawmill industry. Many people lived at a subsistence level and it was a nurturing ground for trouble. When the incident occurred, the local newspaper printed a small notice about a little riot in which a few people were hurt. Today, some believe that 50 to 60 people were killed.

How did you first meet Singleton?

Jensen: We'd never met each other before my agent arranged a meeting. He's quiet and rather intense, so it was difficult at first to tell what he thought. But at the end of the meeting we had already formed a strong human bond, and I got a knot in my stomach when I read the script. I felt that the story needed to be told. I was also enthusiastic about all of the night work with black actors, with lighting motivated by firelight and lanterns. It was a cinematographer's dream.

What did Singleton know about your work?

Jensen: He had seen some of my films, and especially liked Rambling Rose. In that first meeting, he said he didn't want Rosewood to be too dark and depressing. …

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