"The Best Of Enemies" Review: Another Been There Seen That Blockbuster on Race Relations
If you’ve seen a blockbuster Hollywood film dealing with race, you’ve seen The Best of Enemies. You can expect to learn more about the white antagonist than the black protagonist, whose weight in the true story is equal or greater to the other. The heart of the message, as it usually is, is definitely one that is good and should be celebrated. The problem is, with the same old screenplay structure, this film is still preaching to the choir and not digging deep enough to give us a sense of hidden figures in our nation’s history.
The film is set in 1971, when C.P. Ellis (Sam Rockwell) was the Exalted Cyclops of the Durham, North Carolina klavern of the United Klans of America. Ann Atwater (Taraji P. Henson) was a fair-housing activist at the time, trying to fight for the treatment of African-American residents in the community. After the segregated black elementary school burns from an electrical fire, the community has to decide whether to integrate the white school or not. Bill Riddick (Babou Ceesay) is brought in from Raleigh to conduct a charette, a deadline driven time of planning or activity, in order to bring the city to a conclusion.
The film builds Ellis’s character early on by showing him and fellow klansmen shooting up a home of a white woman who is dating a black man. “Wait for the light!” C.P. says. They shoot through the bottom floor of the home to intimidate her as soon as the light upstairs is turned on. It’s an interesting look from the inside of the Klan as to how they’re doing their “job”. Ellis also has a son in a mental hospital who he visits regularly and pours love into. So it’s evident that he understands loving someone who may be different, but is staunch in his racist thinking. Atwater is always breathing hard. It could be because she’s overweight, but there is a sense of anger brewing under the surface with her that comes from years of hard work and hard living. While she’s not afraid to talk to the city officials who don’t care what she has to say (one turns in his chair to give her his back during a hearing) Atwater means business and expects them to listen.
The elements of a dynamic drama are there. There is an internal clock within the film that pushes the movie forward. You have a man who hates black people but loves his family and a woman who advocates for black people by speaking truth to power on a daily basis. The question becomes, how did they go from enemies to having the kind of friendship in which Atwater delivered the eulogy when Ellis died in 2005? It’s this deep study in character development and human interaction that writer/director Robin Bissell misses the mark on in exchange for symbolism over exhibiting the internal reflection/change of his characters.
Throughout the film, social class is represented through clothing. The rich and educated wear suits and nice clothes in the film, while the “common folk” wear button ups and dresses thin enough for their sweat stains to seep through and make sure we know they work hard. In fact, the rich don’t ever seem to sweat in a community that seems to be hot as evidenced by Atwater’s constant use of a handkerchief to dab away her sweat. There is a surface level exploration of the politics of the town that would give the viewer an inside look at why tensions exist amongst the the groups represented in the film.
Atwater does a nice thing for the Ellis family, unbeknownst to them, which simply serves as an example of being kind even when someone is mean to you. At the end of the charette, Atwater gives a one sentence answer in whether the schools should be integrated or not. We get a monologue from Ellis for his decision to do what we knew was right from the beginning. There is a disproportionate amount of focus and backstory on both characters in this film, and that has to stop.
If The Best of Enemies had never been made, the vast majority of people who see the film would never know about Ann Atwater and C.P. Ellis. So there has to be some credit given to the people who brought this movie to life. However, if we’re going to have stories dealing with race and overcoming prejudice in our history, let’s do it the right way! Taraji P. Henson and Sam Rockwell brought it as their characters, but perhaps the same equality their characters were fighting for should be brought to similar screenplays in the future!
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