This past year, I have had numerous conversations about the problem of last year’s best picture Green Book. It was too simplistic to think you can end America’s racial divide by going on a long road trip. Plus, it was just two people. Now comes Robin Bissell’s The Best of Enemies in which we witness the coming together of two people, but the impact of their unlikely friendship would affect an entire community.
In 1971, segregation was supposed to be a thing of the past, but it isn’t, particularly in Durham, North Carolina. Our story focuses on two outspoken leaders on far opposite sides of the track. On one side, there’s Ann Atwater (Taraji P. Henson) the leader of the grassroots activist group, Operation Breakthrough and on the other is C.P. Ellis (Sam Rockwell), the president of the Durham chapter of the Ku Klux Klan.
After an electrical fire burns down one of the black schools, it reignites the town’s school integration debate. A gutless city council led by Councilman Carvie Oldham (Bruce McGill) thinks the fire-damaged school is safe enough for learning, and in turn, Atwater’s Operation Breakthrough sues the city to bring the white and black schools together. The courts want nothing to do with making a decision either way (mostly one way), so they stall by bringing in Bill Riddick (Babou Cessay) to conduct a charrette, in hopes the community will solve the problems on their own.
“…they stall by bringing in Bill Riddick to conduct a charrette, in hopes the community will solve the problems on their own.”
Don’t know what a charrette is? Well, me neither. It’s a community meeting bringing opposite sides together to talk it out and find a solution. Co-chairing the meetings are a reluctant Atwater and Ellis, who want nothing to do with the other. Members of both parties sit together and hash out the issues. At the end of ten days, they present resolutions to the “Senate” comprised of Atwater and Ellis and ten other randomly selected members of the community (half black/half white). For the resolution to be legally binding, two-thirds of the Senate must agree (8 of the 12 members).
It’s hard to believe there was a time not-so-long-ago when the country was so severely divided (he said sarcastically). One theme in The Best of Enemies is having faith in the small victories. We have two deeply entrenched factions, who hates the other with equal fire and passion, and one side clearly has its thumb on the other. The point of the charrette is to force the two warring factions, to be in the same room together and listen to one another. Something both sides were unwilling ever to attempt, and it was only the brave, which was few, willing to reach across the divide.
After C.P. Ellis’ tirade about Durham’s poor education system, activist Howard Clement (Gilbert Glenn Brown) calls Ellis his “Brother” for being open to sharing his concern for his family. Admittedly, he’s grasping at straws here for common ground, and the proclamation of “brother”-status doesn’t sit well with Atwater. Since everyone in the room are Christians, it’s suggested all the meetings end with singing gospel music (black music). A concession is reached allowing the KKK Youth can display Klan literature at the meetings. As a group of black teens attempts to tear apart the display, Atwater stops them and insists they read the material, so you better understand them and their positions…for strategic political intelligence, of course.
“…tells a fascinating story backed up by solid, compelling performances by Rockwell and Henson.”
As a film, The Best of Enemies tells a fascinating story backed up by solid, compelling performances by Sam Rockwell and Taraji P. Henson. But any emotions you feel comes from the rudimentary presentation of facts, as tends to happen with true stories and less by actual characters themselves. I don’t think I’m spoiling the film by saying it’s Rockwell’s C.P. Ellis that has the most dramatic story arc. As great as Rockwell is in the role, you kind of see it coming, especially when they introduce Ellis’ mentally disabled son. We also have a wide range of personalities representing the debate from various perspectives and intensities. it can feel a little contrived for the sake of presenting differing viewpoints, which is actually a refreshing break from today’s cable news cycles.
The Best of Enemies is a lesson in empathy—listening to and understanding your enemies…whomever they may be, whether political or personal. The charrette, while a significant victory for school integration, didn’t profoundly end racism, but over time it’s in the changing hearts and mind one person at a time; these small victories that ultimately wins the war. It believes listening is far more effective than punching someone in the face.
The Best of Enemies (2019) Written and directed by Robin Bissell. Starring Taraji P. Henson, Sam Rockwell, Babou Ceesay, Anne Heche, Bruce McGill, Gilbert Glenn Brown.
7.5 out of 10 stars