Sam Rockwell and Taraji P. Henson Star in True-Life Drama of Racial Tension.
DIRECTED BY: ROBIN BISSELL/2019
In what can only be described as a “its-so-bizarre-I-can’t-believe-its-true” type of story, The Best of Enemies seeks to demonstrate that it has all of the authentic bonafides that recent Best Picture winner Green Book does not. While both are civil rights-based tales based on real events, Green Book came under fire for failing to secure the endorsement of Dr. Donald Shirley’s family, and several others who knew of the events in question. It also was subjected to the accusation of being another “white savior” movie. The Best of Enemies largely avoids these charges, but may find that other issues will hamper this film from receiving the accolades bestowed upon Green Book, which won the Oscar in spite of its problems.
Sam Rockwell returns to embody another racist character following his Oscar-winning turn as the racist sheriff’s deputy in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. Here, he is the president of the local Durham, North Carolina chapter of the Ku Klux Klan, named C.P. Ellis. Ellis has also been given the Klan’s distinguished title, Exalted Cyclops of the Ku Klux Klan. As he tells it, he’s been carrying his KKK membership card ever since it was bestowed upon him, one of the only times he doesn’t mind admitting to publicly shedding a tear or two. He runs a gas station in town, but doesn’t mind struggling to have ends meet because it means he is successful in selling gas to only half of Durham’s citizens….the white ones.
His arch-nemesis is civil rights activist, Ann Atwater (Taraji P. Henson) who has caused the local city council no share of grief as she fights for good housing, better schooling, and access to everything the white residents have. While she might be on the right side of the civil rights struggle on the issues, she can equally be as extreme in her hatred of whites, much like C.P. Ellis’ hatred of anyone not white. Taraji P. Henson mentions that this was one of the challenges of playing this role, due to Ann Atwater being almost a mirror image of Ellis in many ways as the film opens.
Atwater’s reasons for hating not just Ellis, but also the racist town councilmen, and others she is fighting against, are based on her real-life experiences with racism. Ellis, on the other hand, is hateful from a position of power because of his race, and his desire to fight anyone (Blacks, Jews, Communists, and Liberals) who would seek to take away any of the privileges whites, like him, in Durham enjoy.
Atwater’s narrative journey is portrayed powerfully by Henson whose portrayal of Atwater seems to demonstrate that the root of her hatred really starts at the same place as Ellis, even though morally Atwood occupies the higher ground. Atwood demonstrates that she is even willing to go after other black individuals or civil rights groups who she doesn’t see as being as uncompromising as she is in the fight for equality. One particular individual is Howard Clement (Gilbert Glenn Brown) who gets on her bad side by trying to be empathetic with Ellis when they first encounter one another.
Ellis also has similar views of other whites who are too “friendly” with those he categorizes as enemies. In many ways they are mirror images of each other, as Taraji P. Henson has stated. This makes for an interesting contrast as the events of the film unfold, and it is this dynamic that sets the stage for both character’s larger narrative arcs towards redemption, even though each character’s need for redemption is planted firmly into two very different ways.
When an elementary school for black students catches fire, the city council is forced to deal with the issue of school integration. This is obviously an issue that had been decided by the Supreme Court in 1954 in the case Brown v. Board of Education. Now 1971, Durham’s white population had been able to successfully hold out addressing this issue for some 17 years. The council, led by the two-faced consummate politician, Carvie Oldham (Bruce McGill), seeks the legal ruling of a local judge who seeks to punt it back to “the will of the people of Durham” rather than issue a direct legal ruling he would have to own.
The Judge’s adviser recommends bringing in Bill Riddick (Babou Ceesay) to hold a “Charrette”. Bill is black, but has the perfect temperament and experience to host this event between both whites and blacks in the community to come up with a resolution on three separate issues tied to these events. The most important one being the full integration of schools in Durham. A “Charrette” is a meeting in which all stakeholders in a project attempt to resolve conflicts and map solutions (Dictionary.com). For Bill, its about getting both sides to simply talk to one another. Even if they are arguing, they are learning to talk to one another, which is a huge step forward. Atwater thinks Riddick is as big of a fool as Ellis, but Bill Riddick proves that he might just be smarter than a fox.
Bill slyly nominates Ann and C.P. to be the co-chairs of this event. While the community attends the various break out sessions, and large group meetings, it will be 12 members of the charrette senate that will ultimately decide how things go. Ann and C.P. are 2 of the voters, with each side getting to add 5 more each. A 2/3 majority carries the issue to victory, so the city council wastes no time convincing C.P. to accept the position against his wishes. If they are able to seat one of “their guys” on the inside track to keep integration from happening, then that goal alone should override any of C.P.’s griping about having to work with Ann, and what it would look like for the head of the local KKK to be seen with someone like her.
The script by director Robin Bissell, in his directorial debut (where he also adapted the book by Osha Gray Davidson), avoids some of messier aspects to a racial fight like this one. It shows enough formulaic racism that we’ve seen in other movies to provide context, but backs away from some more of the complicated relationships that are affected by the politics of this charrette. He also tones down what little violence is shown on screen, though racial epitaphs are spoken aplenty (at least in a PG-13 sort of way).
What could have been more interesting would have been seeing some of the true manipulation happening behind the scenes by the city council members on various members of C.P.’s senate team. Also, the stakes could have been raised higher by delving deeper into the situation involving the white hardware store owner that employs a black manager, who is being pressured to change his potential vote in the proceedings. Enough is dealt with to get the job done and the plot moving forward, but the script allows for some of these things to resolve themselves a little too neatly, simply to achieve a most feel-good ending without a lot of struggling with the details.
With this being said, the unlikely friendship that emerges between Atwater and Ellis is a fascinating look at an unbelievable, yet true story that absolutely deserves to be the focus of a feature film. The Best of Enemies has received praise all around, unlike Green Book, by the families of Ms. Atwood and Mr. Ellis, as well as from others who were also a part of this real-life story. While both the real Mr. Ellis and Ms. Atwood have passed, the real-life Bill Riddick and Howard Clement attest that the film is completely true to the events they participated in back in 1971.
The idea of a black civil rights activist and the president of the local chapter of the KKK working together on the issue of school integration is immediately a fascinating story, and both Sam Rockwell and Taraji P. Henson are up to the task of bringing these characters to life in a way that is three dimensional and honest, even if the script feels a bit paint-by-number.
What may surprise many is how empathetic the script is in dealing with C.P. Ellis. It would be easy to set him up as the typical, over-the-top caricature as the racist villain since it would be easier to score points when he’s taken down several notches throughout the story. Thankfully, for the sake of character development, we see him in a much more natural light, both the good and the bad.
As has been noted before in other films and commentary, what makes the racist views of the Klan and others so horrifying isn’t just the views themselves (which are bad enough), but that they can be held by seemingly rational, and loving, family men who espousing the scriptures as their guide, wrapping themselves up in the American flag.
The notion that someone who feels himself to be so right, honest, and patriotic while pursuing the systemic physical, cultural, and social eradication of their fellow human beings, makes this topic all the more sobering and raises the stakes considerably as we watch these events unfold. Rockwell is able to competently walk this line, mastering the subtleties of C.P. Ellis, even if you know exactly where all of this is going to go by the end of the film. His wife Mary, played by Anne Heche, is the true mystery here as we never get a bead on what her true racial views are, and if they are radically different from those of her husband, how she can stand there and support him.
Henson equally has a strong narrative arc as you immediately relate to her sense of justice, and the righteous anger she embodies that comes from seeing so much injustice being done. Ann Atwood has described the difficulty she had being a part of this charrette was that she had to look at this Klansman as an actual person, and not just the personification of evil she had assigned him to be. She had to cease viewing him as a vile, repugnant man who represented the entire system she was fighting against, and see that while that was true of his actions and words, he was just as much a person made in the image of God as she was….the very thing she was trying to convey to whites about herself and the black citizens she was fighting for. She has remarked that by choosing to see him as a human being, it enabled her to see herself change as well. She had to be the change she was trying to instill in others. Maybe Howard Clement and Bill Riddick were on to something.
Instead of the firebrand she usually was, she was able to begin to empathize and dialogue with Ellis. This began to melt away some of the things she despised in him. Henson has a powerful moment, and a funny one, where she stops 3 black teenagers from wrecking a KKK display table. The entire audience is cheering these youth on, and yet she reminds them to think smarter. See the opportunity to read the literature of the KKK, so that they will better know what and who they are up against and be able to refine their tactics. Though she holds the high road, Henson conveys the true struggle this causes her as she contemplates the Klansman hood she re-situates on the table display’s mannequin, remembering how it represents a evil so wicked, that its cost so many their very lives, or dignity. What Ann Atwater was able to do to deny her every righteous anger-based impulses to fight, and instead try to see C.P. Ellis as redeemable was nothing short of miraculous, and as we see in the film’s trailer, it ultimately led to him making a complete 180-degree turn in his life. For the next 30-plus years C.P. Ellis and Ann Atwood remained friends, and often spoke together, at various assemblies and seminars, about racial reconciliation, applying the lessons from their charrette.
While The Best of Enemies is too formulaic to win many awards, it does feature a strong cast depicting an equally powerful real-life story of redemption and healing. This film mainly hits the target it is aiming for in being a feel-good look at what is possible in terms of racial reconciliation, especially for a world that currently seems to be very far apart. The unlikely friendship of C.P. Ellis and Ann Atwater, who were put together in this charrette, may just serve to be an inspiration to all of us that even the hardest of hearts can be softened and changed, if we would just learn to see one another through our common lens: as human.