Courtesy of STX Entertainment
More engaging than “Green Book” and as inspiring as “Hidden Figures, “The Best of Enemies” - a new film which, like those titles above, tackles a small slice of civil rights history with heartfelt sincerity.
Set in Durham, North Carolina 1971, Sam Rockwell (sporting the same type of character transformation that won him the Oscar for “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri”) is Claiborne Paul “C.P.” Ellis, the head of the Durham chapter of the Ku Klux Klan, and the man who eventually clashes with the fiery civil rights activist “Roughhouse” Ann Atwater (Taraji P Henson) over the town’s proposal of school integration following an electrical fire that makes a nearby all black school uninhabitable.
Over the course of a two week period, the community conducts what is called a “charrette” - an intensive that requires candidates from both sides of the issue to hear all viewpoints and arguments and then reach a unanimous verdict. (Which is how CP and Atwater get thrown together, they both represent a distinct group of individuals within their homesteads).
Though some might consider this another middlebrow drama - (probably the ones who weren’t please with “Green Book” winning Best Picture because they believed it was quietly racist (I didn’t think it deserved Best Picture, but I don’t think it was racist either). Regardless, “The Best of Enemies” is an inspirational piece of cinema about a black person and a white person who start off as bickering adversaries, only to work together towards a common goal of understanding and compassion. It’s the kind of feel good movie that doesn’t get enough attention, or gets belittled for the wrong reasons.
You could watch “The Best of Enemies” and become fraught about how the film is essentially a two-hour drama where we see a cross burning, hate fueled, gun toting master of the KKK transform his icy heart into one of compassion. No denying, it is that, and in some circles that probably won’t be copacetic. But as silly as this may sound, the best part about Robin Bissell’s directorial debut is how convincing the transformation is.
For one, the film showcases that in order for change to happen, it needs to be fair and balanced. It’s not easy. Henson, no stranger to the arch of bringing historical powerhouses to the big screen, chews up the film on several occasions embodying the often iterate and strong willed Atwater, though, considering Ellis goes through the biggest change and hurdle, Rockwell gets a hefty amount of screentime.
But this isn’t a “white savior” movie because “Enemies,” while admittedly a drama in which the cause of racial justice becomes a way for a white person to grow, allows the topics and issues to feel more important then the transformation. That doesn’t prevent the outcome from being any less predictable, but with the evolving relationship between Rockwell and Henson in the driver seat, it’s hard to resist the sentiment of what “The Best of Enemies” puts together.