The Victorian art-for-art’s-sake aesthetic of Matthew Arnold (tempered, of course, by the popular taste for seeing things blown up real good) has long governed American filmmakers and filmgoers. “If you want to send a message, call Western Union,” was golden-age Hollywood’s position on political films, and little has changed since. But film is also a powerful propaganda tool, and great propaganda (as Leni Riefenstahl problematically demonstrated) can resemble great art. Indeed, tempering propaganda with conventional narrative can transform a potentially bracing screed into soggy melodrama. That’s just what happens in two new films, Bitter Sugar and Rosewood.

Clearly conceived more in sorrow than in anger, Bitter Sugar is a late hit on the doddering revolution of Fidel Castro. The central character is Gustavo (René Laván), an earnest engineering student described by his girlfriend Yolanda (Mayte Vilan) as “the last communist on earth.” While Gustavo waits for a promised (but unlikely) scholarship to study in Prague, the people around him all take drastic measures to deal with the collapse of the Cuban economy: His father Tomas (Miguel Gutiérrez) abandons psychiatry for a much more lucrative gig playing piano in a tourist-only hotel, and Yolanda flirts with taking money for sex, keeping company with a middle-aged Italian jewelry-store owner (played by co-writer Orestes Matacena) whose wife doesn’t understand him. Most chillingly, Gustavo’s brother Bobby (Larry Villanueva), a heavy-metal rocker whose music is suppressed by the authorities, joins his bandmates in injecting himself with AIDS-tainted blood, so he can be a burden on the state as he commits slow suicide.

Tomas and Yolanda are real enough. The tourist dollars of the resort hotels, which are off-limits to nonguests who don’t work there, have become an irresistible lure to Cubans who can otherwise barely earn enough to eat. Even Bobby is no hyperbole: Intentionally contracting AIDS has indeed become ghoulishly fashionable among the island’s rockeros. It’s the well-meaning Gustavo who is implausible. He’s so dedicated to a Cuba that doesn’t exist that he won’t consider following Yolanda to Miami. And Gustavo’s final gesture, while certainly grand, seems utterly out of character.

Director/co-writer Leon Ichaso (Crossover Dreams) was obviously very concerned about authenticity. He, Matacena, and all the major cast members are Cuban-born, and the director even managed to film some establishing footage in Havana. (The principal photography was done in Santo Domingo.) Shooting in black-and-white with handheld camera, he simulates the front-line feel of a current-events documentary. Of course, such techniques have been so widely exploited that they no longer signify the way they once did. Especially when the camera is trained on principals as attractive as Lavan and Vilán, the effect is more glamorous than gritty.

Ichaso apparently wanted to humanize his film, avoiding the dread “propaganda” tag by emphasizing the sincere Gustavo and the apolitical Yolanda. The result, however, is bland and diminished; sometimes Bitter Sugar seems to be saying that the only thing wrong with today’s Cuba is that attractive young Cubans can’t have a drink in the one of beach-front bars at the tourist-only hotels. Rather than focusing on conflicted Gustavo, the film should have taken up the tale of Bobby, a man on a crazed suicide mission against Castro’s Cuba. That film could have been lurid, unbalanced, polemical, and altogether more interesting.

There might be an equally galvanizing movie in the horrific tale of Rosewood, Fla., a reasonably prosperous, predominantly African-American settlement that was obliterated in 1923 by rampaging white racists from the neighboring town of Sumner. As fictionalized by director John Singleton (Boyz N the Hood) and writer Gregory Poirier, the basic elements of the outrage have been retained. But Singleton has never been able to resist mixing his agitprop with contrived melodrama, as he does again here. Rosewood renders white-hot American disgrace into lukewarm Hollywood pap. The film is so conventional that it was conceived by Jon Peters and features a John Williams score.

The essence of what happened at Rosewood survives the filmmakers’ tinkering: Beaten by a (white) lover, Fanny Taylor (Catherine Kellner) claims an unknown black man raped her. Her housecleaner, Rosewood resident Sarah Carrier (Esther Rolle), knows this isn’t true, but declines to say anything, assuming (reasonably) that white people won’t believe her. Soon an angry mob is headed toward Rosewood, where the Carriers are the first target; Sarah’s son Sylvester (Don Cheadle) owns a piano, which makes the family audaciously affluent. Rosewood store owner John Wright (Jon Voight) and Sheriff Walker (Michael Rooker) try to calm the mob, but they’re reluctant to defy their friends and neighbors. Rosewood is destroyed, and perhaps as many as 150 of the town’s residents—historical records are mute on the incident—are massacred.

Into this dismal chapter of American history, Singleton and Poirier have written a superhero. Mann (Ving Rhames) is a worldly, newly arrived World War I veteran (complete with a horse named “Booker T”) who briefly sees Rosewood as a haven. He’s considering marrying Scrappie (Elise Neal) and settling down, when suddenly the town’s tranquility is destroyed. Concerned that, as an outsider, he’ll be the likely suspect in the alleged rape, Mann leaves town, but soon circles back for some death-defying swashbuckling. (It should be noted that Singleton’s next project is the equally mythological Shaft.) In Rosewood’s version of the events, it’s Mann who rounds up the town’s women and children, hidden in the swamps, and puts them on a train to safety. (The train rescue is historical, but the indestructible Mann is the invention his emblematic name suggests.)

The appeal of such material to Singleton is obvious. Rosewood highlights not only black heroics, always a concern of his, but also white barbarity and female duplicity, which are just as central to his agenda. Despite the material’s didactic possibilities, however, the film isn’t nearly as tendentious as Singleton’s previous efforts, especially his Nazi/lesbian/black-power campus epic, Higher Learning. In fact, Rosewood would have benefited from some hysteria.

With its substantial quota of lynchings, shootings, and burnings, Rosewood will no doubt be judged intense by mainstream tastemakers. (Siskel and Ebert, those connoisseurs of the second-rate, have already endorsed the film.) Yet the cruelest scenes don’t approach the impact of such historical-horror cinema as the first half of Mississippi Burning (before the dumb plot kicks in) or Germany, Pale Mother (whose implied dread is more chilling than Singleton’s most blatant brutality). When the director isn’t striving to turn this irredeemable cataclysm into a black-cowboy flick, with Mann’s six-guns a-blazing, he slips into the uplift mode of an after-school special.

Rosewood is careful to ally black and white in the endeavor to save the women and children—the train rescue suggests Schindler’s List remade as a black cop/white cop buddy picture—and echoes this partnership with two brave boys, one black and one white. Mann selects the former as his “lieutenant” in the rescue operation, informing him that he is now a man. Later, the son of one of the most vicious Sumner racists declares his own manhood: “You ain’t no man,” declares the kid, who looks to be about 10, to his deplorable dad.

This manliness (and Mann-liness) is supposed to be stirring, but it just plays as the director’s usual macho bluster. Ultimately, the film reveals that one of the movie’s principal characters, presumed dead, is actually alive—and then we’re treated to the sound of that lying bitch Fanny finally getting the beating she deserves. Rosewood turns out to be almost as hateful as its villains, and Singleton manages to make a ghastly truth ring utterly false.CP

More from WCP