The Best of Enemies
Not to spoil it for you, but another racist white guy is redeemed in The Best of Enemies, a new film based on the 1971 battle to desegregate the public schools of Durham, North Carolina.
The white guy is local KKK leader C.P. Ellis (Sam Rockwell), who joins a 10-day series of community meetings that will decide the schools’ future so he can work to keep segregation in place. Co-chairing the deliberations with Ellis is African-American housing activist Ann Atwater (Taraji P. Henson).
You know where this is going from the first few minutes.
The Best of Enemies is an earnest, issue-of-the-moment movie, and I’ve no doubt that everyone involved had the best intentions. I also have no doubt that many viewers will enjoy it. It’s an uplifting history lesson with the aesthetics of a good TV movie and the performances of a good college play.
Rockwell is doing a less acerbic variation on his Oscar-winning role from Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri and seems to have been instructed by first-time writer-director Robin Bissell to be as benign a racist as possible. What Henson is doing, within a Tyler Perry-worthy makeover, is more complicated: Impersonation? Caricature? Homage?
I’ll let those who actually knew Atwater figure that one out, but suffice it to say that neither performance carries the darker tones of the historical moment: the vicious anger of white supremacy or the painful scars of discrimination.
So far, the movie appears to have raised fewer complaints of deviation from the facts than Green Book, so perhaps it hews closer to the truth. It is not, however, as craftily made as the Oscar winner and has none of that movie’s clever set pieces and showcase moments. (Three supporting players — Babou Ceesay, Anne Heche and John Gallagher Jr. — do admirable work in their smaller roles.)
The Best of Enemies plods through to its inevitable conclusion, then offers the usual documentary footage of the real people. It’s a true story well worth hearing — maybe via the audiobook of the nonfiction source material, journalist Osha Gray Davidson’s 1996 book The Best of Enemies: Race and Redemption in the New South. As for the movie, if you’re in the mood for another civil rights tale that hinges on the conversion of the white dude, feel free.
Grade: C-minus. Rated PG-13. Playing at the Grail Moviehouse, AMC River Hills, Biltmore Grande and Carolina Cinemark.