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