The Best of Enemies
Updated: Feb 8, 2020
True stories about America’s racial history are always popular at the movies, but they seem even more prevalent in recent years. The latest example is The Best of Enemies, about the 1971 battle for school integration in North Carolina between a black civil rights activist and the President of the local KKK chapter. It is similar to Best Picture winner Green Book in that it boils race relations down to one relationship at one point in time as well as simplifying that conflict. If you will recall, I did not like Green Book. It felt condescending and somewhat ignorant. Yet, I kind of liked this one.
Yes, it is manipulative and occasionally contrived, but the performances are really strong and its story contains a decent amount of power in spite of the presentation. Though it is a little troubling to have a significant true tale heavily dramatized for the screen, when you have Taraji P. Henson and Sam Rockwell squaring off and giving your speeches, you can reclaim a lot of goodwill.
Henson plays Ann Atwater, a firecracker who has been fighting something her whole life. Her every day is spent arguing against the injustices heaped on the black community in Durham. Rockwell’s C.P. Ellis is a segregationist happy enough with the way things are, pleased to show anyone who is not a white Christian where their place is. When the black school catches fire, a decision needs to be made: should those students be integrated into the white school? To solve this issue, a two-week community debate is set-up, to be ended with a vote that will be the final word on segregation in the town. The co-chairs are Ann and C.P.
Though The Best of Enemies (127 minutes, minus the end credits) has a “mismatched partners who hate each other” vibe, it does not fully develop the relationship between the two main characters. They do not actually have a shared story here. Ann is mostly seen fighting for her rights, while C.P. gets a pretty deep personal life. I understand what the filmmakers were thinking; he is the one with the big arc. But it makes the storytelling uneven. It also makes the final act quite predictable, lessening its impact somewhat. These two people are supposed to be symbolic of the issues, and they kind of are. However, the movie makes things a little too easy for itself.
Lucky for us, Ann and C.P. are portrayed by two tremendously capable actors. So, while Ann does not get as much attention as she deserves, the character still resonates because of the actress playing her. Taraji P. Henson is all outrage and love in the role. Henson is a really powerful actress who brings a ton of intensity. Sadly, since she is not given a subplot of her own, most of her screen time is spent scowling. She also never gets the big passionate speech I expected for her. Regardless, she gives her all and makes Ann come off as slightly more fleshed out than she actually is.
Much more time is given to Sam Rockwell’s Klan leader, C.P. He is shown leading the Klan, meeting with racist town leaders and taking care of his family. The intention is to humanize him, which it does. By doing so, it unfortunately softens some of the pain he caused. Rockwell tries to make this transition believable. He mostly does. I question giving him the majority of the important moments (it makes it seem a little too much like the filmmakers are sympathizing with the racists), but he certainly delivers in them. He is obnoxious, hateful, compassionate and caring. It is an uncomfortable combination Rockwell somehow pulls the movie through.
The Best of Enemies is not the smoothest ride. It is a factual story about race that feels Hollywood-ized. For whatever reason, it did not bother me this time. Part of it is the performances (a large part). Part of it is that writer/director Robin Bissell generally stays away from unnecessary characters or details. If you are looking for the full, real, story, read a book (it is based on Osha Gray Davidson’s 1996 non-fiction book “The Best of Enemies: Race and Redemption in the New South”). The movie is a solid piece of entertainment. It may be problematic for a noteworthy moment in history to become multiplex ready entertainment but, well, that’s show business.
3¼ out of 5
Taraji P. Henson as Ann Atwater
Sam Rockwell as C.P. Ellis
Babou Ceesay as Bill Riddick
Anne Heche as Mary Ellis
Bruce McGill as Carvie Oldham
Wes Bentley as Floyd Kelly
Screenplay and Directed by Robin Bissell