THE BEST OF ENEMIES, directed by Robin Bissell, is a drama set in Durham, North Carolina in 1971. The film is based on the real-life story of the struggle to integrate schools in Durham.  The focus is on the relationship between Ann Atwater, a fearless and intense civil rights activist, and CP Elliot, the president of the North Carolina chapter of the Ku Klux Klan. The film is good, with a fascinating story and good performances, despite a few strange choices by the filmmakers.

Following a fire burning a segregated school in Durham, North Carolina, in 1971, an intense battle broke out over the integration of public schools. After local leaders fail to take action, a judge sends a man to the town to run a charrette. The segregationists and integrationists engage in structured and facilitated interactions and debate. The leaders of the two movements, Ann Atwater and C.P. Ellis, were forced to remain in close contact. This caused them to reevaluate their ideas and methodology, as they became the best of enemies.

Performances

In a civil rights drama, the film can really only succeed if the performers are believable as more than just mouthpieces for ideologies. This is one of the greatest successes of THE BEST OF ENEMIES. Somehow, Bissell gives depth and even empathy to many characters, including the president of the KKK. Sam Rockwell’s portrayal of C.P. Ellis was superb. He manages to show a man who is simultaneously misguided, vile and sympathetic. Ellis’ character is much more three dimensional than I anticipated. The other lead of the film, Taraji P. Henson, portrays Ann Atwater.

Henson’s depiction of Atwater manages to capture the power and confidence emitted by the actual historical figure of Ann Atwater. Henson’s performance is also laced with comedic moments that are hit and miss. Both leads give solid performances that support and essentially carry the film.

THE BEST OF ENEMIES- Taraji P. Henson as Ann Atwater
Henson as Ann Atwater (Far Right) In THE BEST OF ENEMIES – Material Pictures and Astute Films

The film’s secondary characters are often not as deep as the main characters but there are still interesting characters throughout. Anne Heche plays Ellis’ wife very well. Her character shared scenes with both Ellis and Atwater, and she added an interesting layer of emotion to both of them. Babou Ceesay as Bill Riddick and Gilbert Glenn Brown as Howard Clement are also noteworthy and intriguing characters. They were always interesting on screen, even if they were not developed as much as they deserved.

Technical Aspects

The film was shot beautifully. It has a gorgeous color palette working in tandem with the production design to put the audience into the time period of the film. Beautiful sets and music from the early 1970s immerse the audience in a town that feels real. One of the major successes of the film is the authenticity and the beauty of the design of Durham.

THE BEST OF ENEMIES- Ann Atwater
Henson as Atwater In THE BEST OF ENEMIES – Material Pictures and Astute Films

A technical aspect which felt rather lackluster was the editing of the film. The first half could benefit from being trimmed down, however, the film makes up for it with its engaging characters. The first act of the film had a poor pace, and it felt as though it took a long time for the film’s action to begin. The time spent with interesting characters is a great strength, but the film felt like it meandered for a half hour before settling into the core of the story. Trimming this down would make the film much more concise and engaging. Once Bill Riddick appears and begins the town’s charrette on school integration, the film moves much more quickly.

The second half manages to be more captivating and engaging than the first half. Another aspect of the film’s editing that was slightly disjointed was the sound mixing. There were a few instances where small sounds that should have fallen into the back of the mix were too prominent. Occasionally, there were noises far too loud relative to the dialogue. These were recurring problems that drew attention away from the characters. This acted against the previously mentioned set design to remind you that you’re watching a film.

Toxic Masculinity

One of my favorite parts of this film was the intelligent way that it delved into the indoctrination of youth into hate movements. This aspect is unbelievably relevant in a world where alt-right, nationalist and racist terrorist attacks are on the rise. The film makes a real effort to discuss and show the early signs that push isolated, weak and lonely people towards movements that claim to offer them a radicalized home or “brotherhood.”

The film also weaves toxic masculinity into this discussion of radicalization and indoctrination in a way that makes sense and really helps make a person who was as deplorable as C.P. Ellis, a Ku Klux Klan leader, feel like a human. This film’s discussion of the topic is refreshing, shocking and surprisingly nuanced.

An Error of Omission

THE BEST OF ENEMIES is a film about the human capacity to improve ourselves, regardless of how moral or immoral we are. This is a truly meaningful and wholesome message, however, I do believe that the way the film sets up the eventual change is questionable. Bissell was tasked with doing a very tough job of making Klansmen seem capable of change or redemption. Unfortunately, the film makes a shift in ideology seem possible by making the KKK seem less disgusting and evil than they actually were.

THE BEST OF ENEMIES
THE BEST OF ENEMIES Poster From IMDb

In the film, the KKK only commits two acts of violence, and they were both against white women. It seemed strangely dishonest about the Klan’s violence depicted in the film not to be towards African Americans. This seemed like a shortcut that made Ellis’ involvement in the organization less disgusting than it really was. Obviously, almost everyone knows what atrocities an organization as vile as the Klan committed. The film rests on the audience to remember how horrible their actions were, instead of showing them.

The film does absolutely show them spreading hate, but only through words; this is a mistake. It is difficult to make the shift believable, but it did really happen and that is why this story is so fascinating. The film does not portray the Klan in a positive light by any means, but the film could and should have done more to show their evil nature. By avoiding Klan violence, it felt like the film washed away some of the actual struggles and pain faced by African Americans during the fight for civil rights. A more realistic depiction of their actions would have made the payoff at the end more rewarding.

THE BEST OF ENEMIES = Thumbs Up

Overall, THE BEST OF ENEMIES is a film that is worth seeing. Despite the editing and some questionable decisions, the film is still inspirational and depicts a story worth celebrating. Bissell’s film is a celebration of those who fought for integration and civil discussions. I would recommend the film and rate it 7 out of 10 (C).

One Comment

  1. George

    April 5, 2019 at 2:28 pm

    I wasn’t sure if I was going to watch this movie, but now I definitely will. Very Cool!

    Reply

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