Set in 1971 North Carolina, The Best Of Enemies finds Taraji P. Henson taking on the Klan and, through a radical act of kindness, winning. Against similar odds, the movie likewise is a success.
It is, to be sure, imperfect and uneven. It’s based on fact, heavily fictionalised. It’s a little clunky.
It indulges Henson and Sam Rockwell — wily, fearless, talented performers — in some juicy grandstanding.
Three-and-a-half minutes into the picture, for example, in a meeting with a white city councilman, the African-American civil rights activist Ann Atwater played by Henson grabs a rotary-dial telephone receiver and clocks the man on the head, interrupting his call so she can launch into a “You listen here!” speech about crummy housing conditions for black folks in East Durham.
It’s a surprise and a small wonder, then, when The Best Of Enemies starts getting good and pretty much stays that way to the end.
This may be an apples/oranges comparison, but: For a true-ish story of racial animus, bone-deep prejudice and the American South in the civil rights era, it’s a better, more nuanced and more interesting feel-good movie than a certain, recent, less interesting Best Picture Academy Award winner we could mention.
The historical basics in The Best Of Enemies go like this: In 1971, with the threat of violence looming over the integration of Durham’s public schools, Raleigh-based community organiser Bill Riddick put together a 10-day summit known as “Save Our Schools,” or SOS.
Backed by the North Carolina AFL-CIO, with federal grant money, the summit was conducted as a charrette, gathering a full range of opinions and community members chosen to vote for or against resolutions.
Here’s where the “made-to-be-a-movie” part comes in. Riddick solicited two radically opposed Durham leaders to co-chair the summit. One was Atwater, very big in the black neighbourhood development movement and a string of boycotts and protests. The other was C.P. Ellis, president of the Durham chapter of United Klans of America and a card-carrying KKK member, just like his daddy.
Over the 10 days, the die-hard white supremacist and the die-hard integrationist found a precious commodity: common ground.
Ellis and Atwater came to know each other’s family stories, their related circumstances of growing up poor in the United States. On the final day of the charrette, Ellis astonished many, including himself, and voted his newfound convictions.
The Best Of Enemies is the latest offshoot of this little-known but seriously inspiring example of an ideological and racial divide, bridged by simple human communication.
First-time feature filmmaker Robin Bissell, a producer by trade, wrote the script, which was “inspired by” (though not adapted from) the nonfiction account written by Osha Gray Davidson. (Mark St. Germain wrote a play about it, likewise using the “best of enemies” phrasing.)
The movie streamlines the narrative, cuts corners and has its share of routine, on-the-nose confrontations. But it does this, too: It sees this time and these people as reasonably complex individuals, all along the spectrum of extreme left and extreme right.
In a welcome turn, Anne Heche is effectively guarded as Ellis’ wife, more of a progressive than she lets on. Babou Ceesay adds both gravity and levity as Riddick; in supporting roles, among a nicely varied array of antagonists, Wes Bentley (as Ellis’s fellow Klansman) and Bruce McGill (as the latest in his long line of oily city officials) stand out.
Rockwell’s Ellis enjoys the narrative advantage of the story’s most notable character arc, ie, starting out in this corner, and ending up waaaaay over in that one. (His Oscar-winning turn in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, no one’s idea of authentic American anything, took everyone’s mind off the movie’s problems, along with his fellow Oscar winner, Frances McDormand.)
The movie version of Ellis, pumping gas (he was actually a Duke University maintenance worker at the time of the charrette), rolling around town like a baby Huey Long, works as a characterisation because Rockwell does all this with unexpected subtlety.
Neither Rockwell nor Henson physically resemble their real-life counterparts, but if that sort of thing rules out a docudrama for you, well, you can rule out a helluva lot of docudramas along with this one.
Henson seizes on every opportunity to boss her scenes in The Best Of Enemies. But there are also moments here and there when she gives a look or a line reading exactly as much as is needed, as opposed to slightly more than that.
I like this movie, especially now, because it puts a premium (despite one too many montages replacing actual discussion of the issues) on finding compromise and resolution the hard way: by getting to know your ideological adversary, and then doing something about what needs doing.
Bissell has a few things to learn, both as a writer and a director, but already he has a knack for drawing honest performances from excellent actors. And that’s a fine place to start a directing career. - Michael Phillips/Chicago Tribune/Tribune News Service
The Best Of Enemies is currently showing on GSC International Screens.
The Best Of Enemies
Director: Robin Bissell
Cast: Taraji P. Henson, Sam Rockwell, Babou Ceesay, Anne Heche, John Gallagher Jr.