Best of Enemies Review

The new true-life drama The Best of Enemies exists in a unique, purgatory-like space. On one hand, the events it depicts are fascinating in their presentation of how potent and visceral the racial divide was (and still is) in parts of our country. On the other hand, at no point is The Best of Enemies remotely cinematic or dramatically interesting. The story being told here is necessary to learn about in 2019, and lead actors Sam Rockwell and Taraji P. Henson are perfectly well-suited to playing their characters, but the script and direction are less compelling than skimming a Wikipedia entry about the real story being dramatized.

Set in Durham, North Carolina, in 1971, The Best of Enemies focuses on two people who exist as extreme opposites. On one side, there’s Ann Atwater (Henson), a community organizer first seen advocating for better housing conditions for Durham’s black population. On the other, there’s C.P. Ellis (Rockwell), the president of the local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan, who’s more than happy to stonewall Ann in her attempts to gain racial equality. After an electrical fire renders the segregated, blacks-only school unsafe, the question arises of whether or not Durham’s schools should be racially integrated. Eventually, the community sets up a charrette, in which different community leaders on both sides come together to propose and vote on a resolution. And, wouldn’t you know it, Ann and C.P. are tasked with co-chairing the summit despite their innate hatred for each other. Will they realize they have more in common than not? Will the schools be integrated? Have you seen a modern historical drama lately?

In fairness, the problem with The Best of Enemies is not that its outcome is instantly predictable. The problem begins with a phrase from the previous paragraph — “on both sides”. You might, in the year 2019, not be particularly interested in seeing the side of the Ku Klux Klan given equal emotional weight and depth as that of non-white characters. Thus, it’s even more aggravating that debut writer/director Robin Bissell doesn’t give equal time to both Rockwell and Henson.

Just as inexplicable Best Picture winner Green Book was, much to its detriment, the story of a white guy learning that racism is bad, so too is The Best of Enemies about a white guy learning the error of his bigoted ways. There’s a version of this drama that rests squarely on Atwater, but the film presented is entirely about C.P. Ellis, and how he comes to the eventual realization that people in the Ku Klux Klan are not so nice! It’s a Herculean task to sympathize with a Klan member, especially one who we see leading a group of his fellow Klansmen to threaten a white woman by shooting at her house for daring to fraternize with black men. It’s even more difficult to imagine this character being our protagonist. Yet here we are.

If there’s any saving grace to watching a race-relations film that leans too hard on its white lead, it’s that Sam Rockwell is…well, Sam Rockwell. Though the role of C.P Ellis is one he could play in his sleep, he acquits himself as well as possible (in comparison to Viggo Mortensen in Green Book, delivering what may be the most embarrassing performance of his career). Though Bissell’s script is maddeningly vague on why Ellis changes — there’s no need to convince the audience of why racism is bad, and integrating schools in 1971 is long overdue, but the script never fully clarifies why Ellis would come to that conclusion — Rockwell does his able best. Henson does the same, with a painfully underwritten role. Ann Atwater is a fierce but kind fighter, but she’s also one-dimensional. The only life the character has is what Henson brings to each scene; as the 133-minute film stretches to its inevitable conclusion, she gets fewer moments with which to try and enliven the proceedings.

If nothing else, The Best of Enemies is hampered by the distinct sense that it arrived about 25 years too late. The story sadly does resonate in 2019, but framing it to focus on the gradual evolution of a racist white man feels like the kind of thing filmmakers might do if they were angling for a Best Picture nomination in 1995. It’s especially frustrating because of the arc C.P. Ellis goes through in the film: he is meant to learn more about black people in Durham, thus enabling him to understand that their basic human rights and needs are the same as his own. But we process all of that through Ellis, who spends far more time with his KKK brethren (personified by a slick, sunglasses-sporting dude played by Wes Bentley) than with the people who end up enlightening him.

The Best of Enemies could have been more accurately titled Straw Man: The Movie, or, if you like, Racism is Bad: Part 8,000. The points made in the film are tailor-made, as if by committee, to make you cheer or clap or hiss depending on the context. No doubt, Bissell is fortunate to have Sam Rockwell and Taraji P. Henson as his two leads; their natural charisma and talent are the film’s not-remotely-secret weapons. But the story is simply not dramatically interesting. In fact, the story of Ann Atwater and C.P. Ellis would make more sense as a documentary…one that already exists. It’s called an An Unlikely Friendship, and it’s on YouTube. It’s almost certainly more insightful and compelling than this trite fictionalization.

/Film Rating: 4 out of 10

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About the Author

Josh Spiegel is a Phoenix-based critic & writer. He's one of the hosts of Mousterpiece Cinema, a podcast about Disney films. He's also written a book of criticism on Pixar, titled Yesterday is Forever: Nostalgia and Pixar Animation Studios.