File this one under ‘too crazy not to be true’. The deep personal friendship between outspoken civil rights activist Ann Atwater and Ku Klux Klan leader turned fellow civil rights activist C.P. Ellis is as inspiring as it is extraordinary. The new drama “The Best of Enemies” tells their remarkable story which is nothing short of improbable.
The film is based on Osha Gray Davidson’s 1996 book The Best of Enemies: Race and Redemption in the New South. It marks the feature film debut for Robin Bissell who directs and wrote the screenplay. Bissell spent a ton of time with Atwater learning from her experiences and getting valuable input. The two became close with Atwater giving Bissell’s script her enthusiastic stamp of approval. Sadly she would pass away in June of 2016.
The film is driven by two equally big yet equally fabulous performances. Taraji P. Henson loses herself playing Atwater, a single mother raising her children in the powder keg that was 1971 Durham, North Carolina. A notorious fireball (even earning herself the nickname Roughhouse Annie), she was an ardent community organizer and the face of a local hard-working activist group.
C.P. Ellis is played by the always fiercely committed Sam Rockwell. In Bissell’s telling Ellis runs a small full service gas station (he was actually a college maintenance man) which barely offers enough income to support his wife and kids. But people around town mostly know him as the president of Durham’s chapter of the Ku Klux Klan. This earns him the respect of the prejudiced white community, understandably draws the ire of the black community, and sets him up as a puppet for opportunistic local politicians.
A suspicious fire at a black elementary school pushes integration to the forefront of local conversation. The white supremacists see it as segregation’s last stand and they have a stacked City Council to back them. The outspoken Atwater leads the other side who are willing to defend their children and their rights regardless of the cost. As the threat of violence intensifies Bill Riddick (a pitch-perfect Babou Ceesay), a lawyer and organizer from Raleigh, is brought in to mediate a 10-day “Save Our Schools” community summit to find a public resolution. I bet you can guess who he chooses as his co-chairs?
Bissell’s script tees up several big scenes especially for Henson. They certainly come across as attention-getters but it helps that Henson knocks it out of the park. She’s also given some meaty monologues which not only highlights the performance, but shows Bissell’s smart handling of dialogue. Sure they can be a bit on-the-nose, but they always feel genuine and in tune with the characters and story.
The second half shifts more of its focus to Ellis and not because of some racially insensitive preference of the filmmaker (I’ve actually seen that intimated). Ellis’ transformation is not only key to where the story is going but true to the real-life relationship at the film’s center. Bissell doesn’t sugarcoat Ellis’ deep-rooted prejudice, but he does give Ellis some emotional complexities and personal insecurities which paint him as more than your run-of-the-mill stereotype. Rockwell is superb.
Other strengths of the film – I like how it captures the early seventies southern setting complete with its boiling racial tensions. The ugliness of white supremacy and the powerful influence the Klan still brandished is captured and conveyed in a palpable way. I also can’t say enough about the supporting cast. Ceesay, Anne Heche, Wes Bentley, Bruce McGill, and John Gallagher, Jr. all deliver. My only real beefs – There are second half stretches where we simply don’t get enough of Henson. And at just over 130 minutes couldn’t a little more time be given to the personal side of Ellis and Atwater’s budding friendship?
It’s pretty easy to predict some of the reactions “The Best of Enemies” is sure to provoke. Expect plenty of critical snark and quick dismissals along with the inevitable “white savior” tag (I’m sorry, but if the film has a true “savior” its Bill Riddick). Sadly, for some it doesn’t matter how much truth is in the storytelling. Unless the film is blistering, brash and screaming at the top of its lungs it won’t penetrate those looking at this subject matter through their own specific prism. That’s a shame because the harsh labels and strange readings can’t keep this from being a thoughtful and worthwhile picture. And boy is there room for its message, especially in today’s far-from-colorblind society.
VERDICT – 4 STARS
A good read Keith. I was waiting for the ‘but after the final image in the review, but to my pleasant surprise it sounds like I’ve got a good one to look forward to. Sam Rockwell has been playing a few racists recently. Kind of a disconcerting streak, probably no more than a coincidence though. I love his acting style, he brings so much energy to a role. Always gives it his all.
I definitely see it as Rockwell simply being the best choice for that part. He can really lose himself in these roles which are often ugly and complex.
I’m pretty high on this one. I hope it gets some attention and doesn’t get lumped in with so many other movies that deal with race from certain perspectives.
“Expect plenty of critical snark and quick dismissals along with the inevitable “white savior” tag (I’m sorry, but if the film has a true “savior” its Bill Riddick).”
In other words, the same treatment “Green Book” received. That was what I was thinking might happen when I saw the plot description.
It actually hasn’t been pummeled to the level of “Green Book”, but some of that is definitely out there. I actually liked this film better than “Green Book” but it doesn’t seem to be getting much attention. That’s a real shame.
Nice review. I’ll definitely be looking out for this one.
Thanks. Its release wasn’t as wide as “Shazam!” or “Pet Cemetery”. I’m hoping it doesn’t fall through the cracks.
NGL, I judged this pretty harshly from the trailer too. I really like Henson and Rockwell so it’s maybe something I’ll catch on DVD. I’m glad to hear it’s better than I assumed.
I liked it a lot. So much so that I’m anxious to see it again. It’s funny, the trailer is what sold me on giving this a shot. I’m glad I did. Not sure how it will do at the box office though. It didn’t get the widest of releases.
It’s definitely worth your time. Have you seen the trailer by chance?
I go on premises more than trailers. I like to watch films without knowing too much. It means some bad movies sometimes but it also means huge joys too.
I completely get that. That’s probably the best approach to take.
Not as high as you are, thought some of it had general debut director flaws and Henson’s good, slightly more caricature-ish than I like (though I wonder if part of that is the slightly comical prosthetics).
However, I think Rockwell is substantially better here than his Oscar-winning role in TBOEM, and the scenes he and Henson share are strong. Recommended overall in my book.
I’m with you. I too like Rockwell better here than in Three Billboards. For me the character is fleshed out so much better here.
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