“The Best of Enemies” is a film written and directed by Robin Bissell. The always compelling Taraji P. Henson takes on the role of fireball civil rights activist Ann Atwater while Sam Rockwell has the rather unenviable task of playing Ku Klux Klan leader C.P. Ellis. This movie dramatizes the conflict between these two as they are convinced to co-chair some two week committee meeting set up to finally deal with the issue of segregation which was apparently still going on in Durham, North Carolina around 1970. It is not quite a spoiler to say the two of them ended up developing a solid friendship when it was all said and done. The elementary school for the black children has a fire which then forces the question as to whether or not to integrate with the other schools.
I didn’t know anything about this story until I saw the advertisements for the movie. Henson, in particular, is someone who I sort of keep an eye on because she usually has some interesting projects. I was a little irritated about her predictable yet misguided support for her “Empire” support, Jussie Smollett, but that may be for another blog. She’s still a consistently solid performer and is a powerful presence in this film. Of course, the few interviews I have seen with the late Ann Atwater shows that her moniker of Roughhouse Ann was quite deserved. Atwater was certainly in the right, but she sometimes struggled with the art of subtlety at times. I think I would have liked her anyway if Henson’s portrayal was accurate.
Rockwell certainly is talented enough to hold his own as well. Although his racism was indefensible, the movie shows some pretty complicated and heart-wrenching challenges that C.P. Ellis was apparently facing at the time. Ellis was not really likeable for much of the movie obviously, but the presentation manages to avoid making him seem like a caricature. I thought the transformation of his views was pretty well depicted although there was a lot to try to cram in a two hour movie.
It was great to see Bruce McGill even if he was playing a rather despicable character in this one. I also enjoyed the performance by an actor named Babou Ceesay. Ceesay plays the black activist named Bill Riddick who does get the art of subtlety. He was also the moderator for this community event called a charrette. I got to expand my vocabulary a bit, so that was pretty cool.
I was a little surprised to see that reviews by the professional critics are rather mixed. I am not sure why it didn’t get more of a positive reaction, but I liked it. Maybe the issues were a little over-simplified as expected, but not terribly so. I learned a new piece of history of the civil rights fight. It had a talented cast. I am not sure what was embellished in the typical Hollywood fashion, but I didn’t catch anything that seemed too outlandish or distracting.
This seems like a piece of the Civil Rights Movement that is more overlooked than not, and I am glad that this story was told in an effective, concise manner with what appeared to be the right cast.