'Best of Enemies' Filmmakers Wanted to Stay True to the Real-Life Story

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Sam Rockwell and Taraji P. Henson

The film's director described the real-life duo as "very much alike personally" though their ideologies were initially strikingly different.

The filmmakers behind The Best of Enemies — the true story of how Ann Atwater (Taraji P. Henson), a black civil rights activist, and C.P. Ellis (Sam Rockwell), a local Ku Klux Klan leader, came together during a 10-day community forum on the integration of schools in Durham, N.C., in the 1970s — were always aware of potential comparisons to Green Book or Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. But, as writer-director-producer Robin Bissell said at the film's New York City premiere Thursday, simply dismissing it as a feel-good movie about race does a disservice to the real-life story.

“I know people put labels on things," Bissell told The Hollywood Reporter. "It was another theme for me in the movie, how we label each other. I do it every day. I look at somebody on TV who’s saying something I don't agree with, and I label them: ‘What a jackass.’ But I have to stop myself, because [Atwater and Ellis] labeled each other. So we’re going to get labeled as a movie, and after people see it, they’ll make up their own minds.

He continued, “It’s not lost on me that I three-dimensionalized a member of the Klan. But I did that because that’s what Ann Atwater did. It wasn’t her business to have to change this guy, but she suddenly saw him as a person — not a good person, but a human — and he started seeing her that way. She saw a little crack in there, and said, ‘I can get in there.’ And he wasn’t just a guy, he was the leader of the Klan. He had hundreds of men who would follow him to the ends of the earth. So if she could change him, she knew it would have some kind of trickle-down effect. And it did."

According to Bissell, "the hate stopped" with Ellis. He left the KKK, and remained friends with Atwater until he passed in 2005. To be able to tell the duo's story, Bissell said he needed Atwater.

"Luckily, I had her for three years to talk to," he said, noting that he also was able to speak with Ellis' family; Bill Riddick, who led the charrette in Durham; and Howard Clement, who participated in it alongside Atwater.

"The reality is, we tried to stay true to what Ann Atwater and C.P. Ellis did," producer Fred Bernstein told THR. "And actually, the most rewarding thing to me, is their families loved the movie."

Ann-Nakia Green, Atwater's granddaughter, was even at the premiere Thursday. She described the film as "moving, funny, beautiful, and relevant," adding that she wished her grandmother was there to see it.

"[The film] is just a prime example that we can talk about our problems; we can talk about our issues," Green told THR. "And we can do it in a way — a safe way — that promotes positive solutions. Love wins. Love will always win."

According to Bissell, Atwater was particularly pleased that Henson was portraying her. Danny Strong, one of the film's producers and the co-creator of Empire, was the one to give Henson the script. But with only 29 days to shoot, she didn't have much time to prepare.

"I did a lot of watching her: the documentary, tapes of her, listening to her tone. I never really got a chance to meet her because she passed away," Henson said. "But the family said I was spot-on. I gave it my all. It was very important for me to get it right because she has a whole community that loves her and lifts her up still.”

Bissell described Atwater as having "a power about her stare and her voice."

"She also had a massive compassion and a big heart," he said. "Taraji was exactly that person."

After wanting to work with Henson for years, Rockwell got his wish when he was cast as Ellis.

"It kind of worked out," Bernstein said. "The fact that they knew each other — they had a lot to work on in terms of dealing with one another — it gave [the film] some great emotional resonance that we didn't know we'd have. We got lucky."

Bissell described watching clips of the real Ellis and Atwater as watching The Odd Couple: "So I was like, OK, those are two people that are very much alike personally — not their ideologies, C.P. was the head of a racist, violent group up until he was 44 — but I said, if I can capture that, audiences will want to see him change. They will want to see metamorphosis from bad to good.”

Strong added, "I couldn’t think of a more perfect film for these polarized times we live in; the story of two people that hate each other with the passion of a thousand suns that come to learn about each other by just talking."

The Best of Enemies is currently in theaters.