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Enemies Today, Friends Tomorrow

Taraji P. Henson
Taraji P. Henson
STX Entertainment
 133 Minutes
Rated: PG-13
Directed by: Robin Bissell
Starring: Taraji P. Henson, Sam Rockwell    
The Best of Enemies

At first glance, there are many similarities between the historical drama, The Best of Enemies, and last year’s Best Picture Oscar winner, Green Book. Both films are set in the Civil Rights Era of the 1960s to early 70s, and both are based on actual people, one white and one black in each film, who eventually became lifelong friends. Both seem to be too unbelievable to have actually happened, but they did. And both feature a pair of actors in the lead roles who have multiple Oscars and Oscar nominations between them. The difference, however, and the reason that The Best of Enemies never becomes more than a middle-of-the-road crowd pleaser, is that the movie’s script never manages to make the story of its black protagonist, Ann Atwater (Taraji P. Henson) nearly as interesting or compelling as that of her white counterpart, C.P. Ellis (Sam Rockwell).


The Best of Enemies is a slightly fictionalized version of the story behind the desegregation of the public schools in Durham, NC, a moderately-sized city, in the summer of 1971. A federal court had just ordered the school system to desegregate, and the situation was exacerbated when a fire burned down an all-black elementary school, leaving its students without a facility for the upcoming year. In an attempt to solve the problem, the school board brings in an outside mediator, Bill Reddick (Babou Ceesay). Riddick convinces the board to convene a charrette, a panel comprised of representatives (six black and six white) of various groups in the community. The charrette would have the authority, at its conclusion, to take binding action, including desegregating the schools, by a two-thirds vote.


Reddick realizes that the charrette needs to have members with recognized standing in the community, so he approaches Atwater and Ellis to act as co-chairpersons. She is a member of an activist group, Operation Breakthrough, while he is a service station owner who, not coincidentally, is the Exalted Cyclops of the local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan, at a time when Klan membership was still a badge of distinction in some segments of the white community. Naturally, neither is too eager to participate at first, but eventually, they agree, and, over the course of the two weeks of hearings, become friendlier with each other. A key event in this transition occurs when Ellis’ teenage son, who is institutionalized with a severe developmental disorder, is placed in a room with another boy with similar difficulties. Ellis’ son has a severe panic attack, which only subsides when Atwater visits the hospital and persuades the staff to put him back in a private room.


The Best of Enemies was written and directed by Robin Bissell, whose only previous accomplishment of note in the film industry has been to serve as a producer on a few films, most notably The Hunger Games. He has neither the personal involvement in the project that Nick Vallelonga brought to Green Book or the long experience in the Civil Rights movement that last year’s other Best Screenplay Oscar winner, Spike Lee, brought to BlacKkKlansman. Instead, Bissell turns his script almost entirely into a redemption saga for C.P. Ellis, all the while minimizing Ann Atwater’s participation and the formidable screen presence of Taraji P. Henson.


Henson is top-billed in The Best of Enemies, and she has a handful of good scenes (most of which are highlighted in the film’s trailer), but by the end of the movie, audiences still know little about Ann Atwater, other than the fact that she eerily channels Redd Foxx’s Aunt Esther from Sanford and Son. In reading about Ann Atwater, I learned that, in real life, the woman was quite an accomplished activist around Durham for several years before 1971. None of this appears in the film, other than showing a very sketchy accounting of how she helped get Ellis’ son back into a private room. Further, in contrast with the numerous scenes of Ellis with his family, Atwater’s own private life remains pretty much just that, private.


By contrast, the audience learns early and often about C.P. Ellis, from his appearance at Klan meetings, to his leadership role in a Klan youth council that helped recruit high schoolers for membership to his participation in a (fictional) shooting the windows out of the home of a white woman who had the temerity to date a black man. It’s noteworthy that writer/director Bissell chose not to have Ellis engage in any fictional violence towards blacks, to make his rehabilitation more easily palatable with audiences. As in real life, the film version of Ellis eventually rejects his racist past in the film’s climactic scene in which he must cast the deciding vote on the school desegregation proposal. But the script makes that decision much easier by portraying all of Ellis’ fellow Klansmen as the worst sorts of inhuman scum. There’s not much subtlety here. I got the feeling that Bissell simply didn’t trust the real-life material at his disposal or the ability of his actors to play their roles more subtly.


As a result, The Best of Enemies isn’t so much an attempt to accurately portray a significant, if little known, historical event as good old-fashioned melodrama. There’s little subtlety here with black characters who, other than Atwater and Riddick, rarely have any lines, and white characters who manage to portray all the varieties of reprehensible racism, from sadistic rednecks to crooked politicians to the more genteel, refined head of the White Citizen’s Council, played by Nick Searcy as Colonel Sanders gone to seed. It’s not accurate, but it’s an enjoyable crowd-pleaser, as long as audiences are willing to go along with it. In that regard, Taraji P. Henson makes for an enjoyable protagonist, as she plays Ann as a bull-in-a-China-shop force of nature, forcing her way into one confrontation after another with white authority figures.


The Best of Enemies turns historical drama that raises serious political issues that still resonate today, into a crowd-pleasing battle of good and evil, with the Ku Klux Klan on display in full force. And, as such, it’s reasonably well-made, well-acted feel-good entertainment. However, with these real-life figures and the critical issues they faced, and with these talented actors portraying the main characters, this movie should have done more. The Best of Enemies is decent, but it’s not the best it could have been. 

In this clip, Taraji P. Henson and Sam Rockwell butt heads for one of several times in the film.

Read other reviews of The Best of Enemies: 

The Best of Enemies (2019) on IMDb