The Best of Enemies

Written and directed by first-time filmmaker Robin Bissell best known for producing 2003’s Seabiscuit and 2012’s The Hunger Games, The Best of Enemies tells a truly unbelievable story of segregation bringing two unlikely people together and is headlined by two critically acclaimed actors, but its desire to discuss racial harmony in appropriate terms is not fully realized. Set in the racially charged atmosphere of Durham, North Carolina in 1971, the plot follows two very different characters on completely opposite sides of desegregation: the leader of the local Ku Klux Klan chapter C. P. Ellis, played by Oscar winner Sam Rockwell, and the leader of a local black activist organization Ann Atwater, played by Oscar nominee Taraji P. Henson. After the elementary school for African-American children is partially destroyed in a fire, a town-wide debate rages over whether to desegregate the school system and allow the black children to attend an all-white school. Eventually, a series of community consensus-building biracial meetings known as a charette is organized by the black activist Bill Riddick, played by Babou Ceesay. Rather unexpectedly, Riddick chooses Ellis and Atwater as co-chairs of the two week-long charette to try and come up with solutions regarding segregation and the Durham school system. In what appears as a more sympathetic portrayal of Ellis who struggles with the ideology of white supremacy, the movie spotlights a lot of attention on Ellis and his wife Mary, played by Emmy nominee Anne Heche, and their life struggles despite the fact that Ellis is a public leader of an avowed racist organization. We do witness some of the racist policies and acts of racism that directly affect Atwater and the black community of Durham, but, rightly or wrongly, the filmmaker makes the decision to focus more attention on showing the effects that Ellis and white sympathizers undergo as a result of working with black people. Despite the questionable handling of such sensitive racial issues by a white filmmaker, the underlying true story of Ellis and Atwater working together and eventually becoming friends is remarkable enough to be explored as a movie. Overall, I found it to be a fascinating historical take on a truly unusual friendship but came away from the film questioning if the issues of race were properly discussed, without sugarcoating the serious problems or becoming a white savior movie.

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