“The Best of Enemies” tells a true tale of the troubled tension in the recent South. Back in 1971 in Durham, N.C – the only way to mix Black and White was to lay down a linoleum checkerboard floor. But even after the Civil Rights laws had been passed, some Southern good-old-boys still kept with the white-hooded ways. The Ku Klux Klan was still strong in Durham. There was some movement for Black folk’s equality. But in the South, there was more pain than gain. Schools were still separate, yet not equal – not even close. Klan members and local politicians had each others backs, and that left the Black population in dire straights.
Ann Atwater (Taraji P. Henson) is a local Black organizer and activist. She gets up in peoples way, and she will not let up until she has won. She is polite most of the time, but do not cross her, or get in her way. She has absolutely no time for someone who is a local leader in the KKK. C. P. Ellis (Sam Rockwell) is such a man, a true Southern down-home poor-boy who loves being a part of the KKK. He wants the unity and purpose that the Klan gives to him, even if it means working hard to make ends meet. His wife (Anne Heche) supports Ellis, but she knows that in the nation things are changing. Atwater is a big part of that change.
When there is a fire at the ‘colored-only’ school, there is a crisis point in the town. Where will the children be sent to school? The mood in the town will not allow for a mixed race attendance. But then it goes to court, and judge comes up with a unique idea. He gets a guy from out-of-town to stage a ‘charrette’. This is a very structured legal way to getting local citizens to create a board and conduct meetings, and the end result will be voted up or down – and if passed, that will be the new normal. Bill Riddick (Babou Ceesay) has done this type of thing before, but never with a racially charged concept like school integration.
Ann Atwater is a natural choice to participate. C. P. Ellis hears about it, but at first he wants no part. But he gets friendly advice from the Durham Mayor (Bruce McGill) and a couple of council members. They want Ellis to make sure that the final vote goes the ‘right’ way. Ellis gets more advise from fellow Klan member Floyd (Wes Bentley) – get in there and keep and eye on things. Once the session begin, Ellis and Atwater find that they might have some more things in common than they first had realized.
The people of Durham are not ready to massive change, but they might be open to some adjustments here and there. Also, when a judge orders that the results of this ‘charrette’ must be followed, they all hope it will go all right. There is major destruction in the old school, and the Black youngsters only want a decent place to study and learn. Perhaps the White students that the school will also be able to learn, and this time it will be something outside of what is in a book. On the night of the final vote, there is a lot of worry and anxiety. There have been a few KKK members that strong-armed a couple of White people on the voting panel. They had better vote the ‘right’ way, or else something bad will happen. After all C. P. Ellis is there to make sure it all ends just right…
“The Best of Enemies” follows in line with a recent spate of very fine movies made about true events regarding racial inequality. “Green Book” and “BlacKKKlansman” and “Hidden Figures” are some other examples. This movie also has a fantastically talented cast. Sam Rockwell and Taraji P. Henson do a nicely nuanced portrayal of each historical real-life figure. The story does give the short-end to many of the Black people in the cast, with almost no back story or depth to those characters. Some of the White characters get slightly better treatment (more development), but not by much.
The whole idea of the ‘charrette’ is a unique way of proceeding with a touchy situation. But the biggest downfall is that it is difficult to turn into a compelling story-line. It is basically a bunch of people who go to a bunch of meetings to hash things out. That is the only trouble with this movie – the parts in the middle where it tends to drag along. Putting two great actors into the middle of a overly-long story cannot make it move any faster.
But there is a real true purpose to enjoy this movie – it makes you believe that people can reach inside themselves and find new ideas and better ways to deal with life.