By Liz Lopez
First-time feature filmmaker Robin Bissell wrote the script inspired by “The Best of Enemies: Race and Redemption in the New South” written by Osha Gray Davidson. Daily life in the mid-twentieth-century South was still not an easy time in North Carolina when the KKK still ran their operations very publicly.
Bissell tackles the true story about school integration in Durham, North Carolina and what it took to be implemented at a time the establishment kept the schools segregated, with African – American elementary school children attending “their own” school – Blacks only. When a fire (electrical or perhaps otherwise) causes that elementary school to shut – down, the children’s parents are concerned as it is very likely not fit for any student to attend. They seek an alternative to continue their education. This threat of having to shut down the Blacks -only school and integrate them into the regular school system (aka – all White families), is what brings about the issue of school integration that is already a law in the nation. In the early 1970s, Durham also has the KKK running their activities out in the open.
“The Best of Enemies” is a great film, with very strong performances, yet a little long and predictable in a few scenes. It did not seem to try to cover up any of the realities of this town, the “leaders” who ran it and how they controlled the people of color. I walked out of the film feeling about the same as after viewing Spike Lee’s “BlacKkKlansman,” showing viewers the sick racism of the early 70s in both -which was not so long ago – and with the exception it was in a different state and career (law enforcement vs education). Just like Lee’s film, I highly recommend this for viewing and learning more about the real- life individuals portrayed in Bissell’s story.
The main characters are gas station owner, C. P. Ellis (portrayed by Sam Rockwell) who is the Exalted Cyclops of the Durham klavern of the United Klans of America and Ann Atwater (Taraji P. Henson), a fair-housing activist, and an advocate in general for the city’s African-American residents. Early in the film, Ellis is seen shooting up a house with a White woman in it, along with and his right-hand man, Floyd Kelly (Wes Bentley). Atwater is also introduced as a very vocal woman sitting in a city office and taking matters into her own hands when she is abruptly dismissed.
“The Best of Enemies” centers around a two-week-long meeting in 1971 composed of Durham citizens, both Black and White, to address the subject of school integration. The meeting is organized principally because the local judge knows he can’t issue a ruling against integration. The judge’s confidant suggests calling a black community organizer from Raleigh, Bill Riddick (Babou Ceesay), who has already led these meetings known as “charrettes” in other situations in the country. The drama increases when Atwater and Ellis are selected to be the two co-chairmen.
They may not want to work with each other, but they each have reasons. Ultimately, Ellis thinks if he participates, he will be able to control the outcome to keep the schools segregated. The film absolutely shows the connection between the Klan leader and the lead City Councilman (Bruce McGill, portraying another shady “city leader”).
It is Bissell’s script that shows us Ellis’s journey from spending all his time disliking Ann and the situation he finds himself in, to a place where C.P. actually takes stock of the intimidation tactics in the community. One that moves him deeply is the targeting of the former Vietnam veteran local hardware-store owner, Lee Trombley (John Gallagher Jr.), and his Black store manager who also served.
Watching “The Best of Enemies” does have scenes that are not easy to watch, as disgusting racism truly exists among those who are fearful and ignorant and who regard people that are not like them as “others” who want to take over what they have. We can’t let this hate destroy us and need to know what it was like and what it can become again if not stopped. I hope many learn from it, but there will no doubt be those who “hate” it.
Love it or hate it, this is the reality of many in the past, now shown on the big screen for us to come face to face with years later.
With: Anne Heche, Nick Searcy, Sope Aluko, Caron Holmes and many others in the cast.
The film will be released in theaters April 5th and has an MPAA Rating of PG-13. Running time: 133 minutes.
Source: STX Films