“The Best Of Enemies” is the story of civil rights activist Ann Atwater and Ku Klux Klan leader CP Ellis, who faced off over school integration in 1971 Durham, North Carolina.
The two of them were forced to work together when a judge who didn’t want to hand down a ruling on their case instead ordered the locals to run a charrette — a word I was not familiar with — defined as “a meeting in which all stakeholders in a project attempt to resolve conflicts and map solutions.” Atwater and her team were ready, but Ellis initially refused to participate, until it was explained to him that if the white supremacists didn’t take part, other non-racist whites would, and — since the group’s decision would be legally binding — he and his fellow Klansmen would have to live with the consequences when it didn’t go their way.
Taraji P. Henson is very good as Atwater, affecting just the right tone of weary anger from fighting battles over equality that should have been settled years before. Sam Rockwell is also good, just as he was playing another racist in “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” (for which he won an Oscar last year).
I knew nothing about the Atwater-Ellis story before seeing “Best Of Enemies,” but I was able to predict its outcome early on — including the film’s final scene, which is blatantly foreshadowed about halfway through. Along the way, the plot hits every point you’d expect it to, and isn’t constructed nearly as well as last year’s best movie, also about a black person taking on the Klan, Spike Lee’s “BlacKkKlansman.”
Instead of that masterpiece, the movie “The Best Of Enemies” is most easily compared to is “Green Book.” Like Peter Farrelly’s film, this one focuses too much attention on the racist white guy, Ellis, who softened his hatred of blacks the more he dealt with the strong-willed black character, Atwater. Perhaps that’s because the writer/director is a man, Robin Bissell, who saw the male character as the central figure. That would explain why we get to not only know Ellis as a gas station owner and leader of other racist men, but spend time in his home with wife Mary (Anne Heche) and three of their kids, as well as a fourth child who is in a mental hospital. Meanwhile, we only see short glimpses of Atwater’s family, and learn nothing about her home life. Moreover, we don’t get a single scene showing how successful she’s been as an activist in the community. There’s one sequence early on in a city council meeting showing her fighting for better conditions for some people in low-income housing, but she loses that battle. If she’s such a powerful advocate for what’s right, why not show us how strong she is in victory, instead?
The supporting cast includes Anne Heche as CP’s wife Mary, Wes Bentley as his number two guy in the local Klan, the always-reliable Bruce McGill as head of the Durham City Council, and Nick Searcy (so good in the FX series “Justified” as Timothy Olyphant’s boss) as the head of the the city’s other racist group, the White Citizens Council. They’re all solid, but only their white personalities are fleshed out. We never learn a thing about other black characters, including two guys from the NAACP who supported Atwater and took part in the charrette, but get a total of maybe three minutes of story. The only black actor who has much screen time besides Henson is Babou Cessay as Bill Riddick, the outsider brought in to run the charrette.
All of that’s a shame, because Henson really commits to her role, wearing prosthetics to give her the look of a frumpy, middle-aged poor woman, and even adopting the gait of someone’s who’s been beaten down by life but keeps getting up to continue the fight. When you see historical footage of the real Ann Atwater and CP Ellis during the credits, you’ll see how well Henson pulled it off.
But it’s not enough to make me recommend the movie. I give “The Best Of Enemies” a 5 out of 10.
Final note: don’t confuse this movie with “Best Of Enemies,” a 2015 documentary about the rivalry between William F. Buckley and Gore Vidal.