The Best of Enemies takes us to the early 1970s with racism running high in Durham, N.C. to tell the true story of an odd couple getting together.
At first glance, neither Ann Atwater nor C.P. Ellis look like they could be friends. She’s an Operation Breakthrough activist while he owned a gas station and was also a member of the KKK. Maybe when pigs fly but for 1971 Durham, it would not make sense at all. The two of them only come together reluctantly when East End Elementary suffered damages in a fire. Not that they have any choice because of a court-ordered charrette. Wednesday night’s press screening was the first I heard the phrase. With Councilman Carvie Oldham (Bruce McGill) and White Citizens Council’s Garland Keith (Nick Searcy), Durham would not integrate their students anytime soon.
Enter the NAACP. The judge had no choice but to rule on their injunction. As such, Bill Riddick comes over from Raleigh to get the town to come together for a ten-day charrette. His two co-chairs? The incompatible Atwater and Ellis! The city would be forced to comply by the up-and-down vote.
The Best of Enemies isn’t quite Three Billboards but I can see how someone could get this idea. After all, Sam Rockwell is playing yet another racist who redeems himself during the film’s climactic third act. Hell, I wrote down in my notes that he’s going to vote for student integration. Lo and behold, I was right. The film is based on a true story so this isn’t exactly a spoiler. As the film comes to an end, we get video footage with some of the real subjects. It still feels far-fetched that something like this actually happened in the south. Sure, North Carolina isn’t the deep south but it still feels somewhat of a surprise.
To watch the film’s third act take place means having to suspend disbelief on what’s happening on screen. Listen, I believe that people can change. Believe me, I do. Going into this film, Ellis had been in the KKK for some 12 years. He is a man who cried when he got his KKK card. A man raised to never cry did so when he received a card that showed he belonged somewhere. He goes as far as even citing the motto–“not for self but for others”–when it comes to the final vote. The speech that Ellis makes at the end is probably the most sentimental in the entire film. It’s impossible to even see this coming! Much to the shock of everyone in the audience!
Writer-director Robin Bissell and cinematographer David Lanzenberg allow the camera to linger during these important moments. Some of the votes are more suspenseful than others. When Maddy Mays (Caitlin Mehner) votes no, you feel sad but you know it’s a result of the KKK intimidation against her. When Lee Trombley (John Gallagher Jr.) votes yes, he does so without hesitation because he knows it’s the right thing to do.
Let The Best of Enemies be proof that people–even racists–can change. Though if I’m being honest, these kinds of narratives are starting to get old by now.
DIRECTOR/SCREENWRITER: Robin Bissell
CAST: Taraji P. Henson, Sam Rockwell, Babou Ceesay, Anne Heche, Wes Bentley, Nick Searcy, and Bruce McGill