The Best of Enemies, 2019.
Written and Directed by Robin Bissell.
Starring Taraji P. Henson, Sam Rockwell, Anne Heche, Wes Bentley, Bruce McGill, Nick Searcy, John Gallagher Jr., Caitlin Mehner, Nicholas Logan, Gilbert Glenn Brown, Dolan Wilson, Kendall Ryan Sanders, Chris Cavalier, McKenzie Applegate, Nadej K. Bailey, Brody Rose, Carson Holmes, Kevin Iannucci, Ryan Dinning, David Plunkett, and Babou Ceesay.
Civil rights activist Ann Atwater faces off against C.P. Ellis, Exalted Cyclops of the Ku Klux Klan, in 1971 Durham, North Carolina over the issue of school integration.
Sometimes while scrolling through social media I (and I’m sure all of you have as well) come across someone detailing an encounter about having a conversation with a stranger who eventually revealed they were a Trump supporter, usually where the person on the left abruptly ended the chat. I’m assuming the opposite happens as well, but considering 90% of the people in my life are liberal, this is the scenario I tend to see and really the only one I can comment on.
Nevertheless, it’s what I kept thinking about throughout the bloated 2+ running time of The Best of Enemies (written and directed by Robin Bissell, not only working from history but also Osha Gray Davidson’s book covering the events that transpired), a movie that encourages American citizens from all walks of life and beliefs to come together and decide what’s best for their community through discourse, but specifically here a charrette. Set during 1971 North Carolina, the film is also a hurtful reminder that, even though many things have changed for the good in this country, problems still exist. Subsequently, I started to wonder and contemplate if people are in the wrong for shutting down the possibility of ever being friends with someone that has polar opposite political beliefs; it’s a tough one, especially considering some of the things the far right stand for in this day and age, but ultimately, the message of this movie is one the general public needs to hear but also a message shouted out in vain.
In short, I agree and I don’t; some people can’t be changed and just need to be left alone, others can lean right while still being respectable human beings, whereas a small select few are not as far gone yet to give up hope on. C.P. Ellis (Sam Rockwell, slowly beginning to concern me with how adept he is at authentically portraying racist individuals, each character more detestable than the previous one) is a high-ranking member of the KKK, so at first glance, he seems like the kind of guy not even worth wasting a single breath on explaining the errors of his ways. However, this is a standard Hollywood biopic of racial redemption, so naturally, we know how things are going to pan out. Basically, C.P. feels like the exception to the film’s message, not the rule, which is why it’s not so easy to get behind.
His enemy, per se (and I phrase it that way because this is distinctively C.P.’s narrative, making for questionable storytelling direction, especially considering we are still relatively fresh off a disheartening Green Book Best Picture win) civil rights activist Ann Atwater (Taraji P. Henson turning in compelling work as far as acting goes, but is let down by a highly distracting attempt at physical transformation that includes a bodysuit), standing up for her fellow local black residents against unacceptable living conditions. Bigger fish to fry quickly arises as the school designated for black children burns down, and with segregation still a thing, hateful racists such as C.P. are not going to roll over and accept change. They already feel much has been taken from them despite clearly showing no understanding of the everyday struggles black people were going to at the time, and still do.
As previously mentioned, a charrette is planned to settle on the best course of action, with C.P. and Ann leading the committee for whites and blacks respectively, each allotted a small team of peers for the inevitable voting. This charrette is organized by Babou Ceesay’s Bill Riddick, an up north black man that the hotheaded Ann perceives to be an “Uncle Tom” for his firm grip on civility, even in the face of blatantly racist behavior. The black people wish to play gospel music to lift their spirits throughout the charrette, whereas C.P. opts for a disturbing display of KKK attire. There’s also a scene where Ann comes face-to-face with the robe that is both visually striking and mildly powerful to take in. It goes without saying that more emphasis should have probably been placed on her character.
As it is, The Best of Enemies sticks to asking viewers to empathize with C.P., who is admittedly in some ways a very fine person. He cares for his family, most notably visiting and caring for a mentally challenged son that has difficulty relaxing or finding a calm mental state. It’s also understandable that one reason he is against desegregation is that, considering one of his children is already failing multiple subjects yet trying, he would not want more children in a classroom to take away from one-on-one assistance. His far more levelheaded wife Mary Ellis (Anne Heche) is convinced the teachers are just terrible and irresponsible, but factoring in that we currently live in an age where politicians want even more children in classrooms, his concerns make sense. The problem is that the film opens with C.P. and his gang unloading shotgun rounds from outside streets to the bedroom of a woman, just because she happens to date a black man. It’s an act so vile that even during the redemption arc and ending, it still lingers in the back of one’s mind.
The third act also loses complete sight of the narrative, focusing on side characters that do matter but are also given way too much screentime at the wrong time. It has to be a good 25-minute stretch that Ann goes completely missing from the film, which is unfortunate considering this is her story too, a shocking victory not only for civil rights, but humanity as her and C.P. inevitably begin to bond, going on to remain friends until their deaths in the 2000s. There’s a laundry list of subplots that simply don’t matter; if the movie has to give more time to additional characters, the actual children this charrette is going to affect most would be a good start. There is a brief moment where C.P. is forced to go on a tour of what’s left of the burned school where he ends up meeting Ann’s daughter who looks at him as if he is a monster; it’s another one of the very few striking moments in the film.
Outside of some strong acting from the leads, there just isn’t enough forward momentum to keep The Best of Enemies consistently engaging. It is fixated on the wrong characters, unfortunately wanting to be another white savior period piece, but it also coasts along with the excitement of a history lesson movie shown to high school students. Then there’s the ending which will have you sitting there saying to yourself “don’t do it”, and when the filmmakers do it you will have had enough, promptly leaving the theater before the credits start. The Best of Enemies tells the worst of stories, but in its defense, it is competent with memorable moments here and there made by the terrific ensemble.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★
Robert Kojder is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Flickering Myth Reviews Editor. Check here for new reviews, friend me on Facebook, follow my Twitter or Letterboxd, check out my personal non-Flickering Myth affiliated Patreon, or email me at MetalGearSolid719@gmail.com