Anyone bracing for a Green Book-style explosion of justified outrage at The Best of Enemies can breathe a little. This fact-based story about how Durham, North Carolina, schools were integrated, thanks to a black woman and a white man who learn to work together, is generic. But while it lacks the ambition to turn its obvious plot into a film that feels new, it also avoids the pitfalls of moral smugness and stereotyping. It flows along easily, bolstered by Taraji P. Henson’s and Sam Rockwell’s vibrant performances.
The story is not well-known. In 1971, when some Durham schools were still segregated, a fire in the black school led to a dispute about whether those students could share the white school’s space. Henson plays Ann Atwater, who works for an advocacy group and is first seen insisting that a councilman listen to a single black mother’s complaints about the broken plumbing in her apartment. When he dismisses her and takes a phone call, she grabs the receiver and thwacks him in the head. As the brash, fiercely determined Ann, Henson wears padding, a short wig and walks with her feet planted apart, inhabiting a completely different body.
As C.P. Ellis, a rough-around-the-edges gas station owner and Exalted Cyclops of the local Ku Klux Klan, Rockwell recycles a less violent version of the character he played in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. But he knows how to channel a racist whose mind is eventually changed. There is a flash of contemporary resonance when C.P. tells a Klan recruit that white men are “an endangered species,” an idea that lingers among newly emboldened white nationalists today. But that visceral moment is rare in a film that most often stays safely in the past.
Babou Ceesay plays Bill Riddick, whom the city brings in to run a charrette, a 10-day series of community meetings leading to a vote on school integration. When the reasonable, urbane Riddick, who is black, shows up at the gas station asking the Klansman to be part of the charrette, C.P. snarls, “Boy, you better get on out of here,” and refuses to shake his hand. Ann resists having C.P. involved, too, because she doesn’t think the Klan should be given a voice. Of course, there would be no film if the two didn’t break down and join the charrette.
First-time writer-director Robin Bissell has spent his career as a producer, and was an executive producer of The Hunger Games. Because he never makes the trajectory in The Best of Enemies surprising, the film works best in less familiar moments that reveal behind-the-scenes maneuvers. Bruce McGill plays Carvie Oldham, the slimy head of the city council, who tries to pacify Ann by giving her a chance to speak at a meeting, only to ask C.P. to fill the seats with Klan members before Ann and her supporters arrive. The manipulative Oldham convinces C.P. to become co-chair of the charrette, to prevent some “white liberal” as he says, from tilting the vote toward integration. And in the most harrowing scenes, Klansmen threaten and intimidate two key white voters on the charrette committee.
Riddick’s strategy is to give a little to get a little. When black townspeople at the charrette want to end meetings with gospel songs, Riddick gets the whites to agree by giving in to C.P.’s demand to display Klan material in the hallway. Henson’s best scene comes after she yells at some black kids who are destroying that display and tells them they should read the racist pamphlets, to get inside the enemy’s heads. As she replaces the hood they have pulled off a mannequin in a white robe, she silently stares at the ghoulish hooded figure looking back at her, a moment more potent than the volatile scenes that earn her character the nickname “Roughhouse Annie.”
The cinematography, production design and costumes effectively capture a toned-down working-class 1970’s look. There are a couple of instances of what seems like very bad looping. You can catch Henson and Rockwell’s jaws moving completely out of sync with their words in scenes where their backs are turned. But overall, the film is technically competent and as predictable as its story.
A turning point comes when Ann does a Good Samaritan turn that helps C.P.’s family and his mentally challenged son, who is in a nearby institution. A more sophisticated script might have explored the possibility that this was at least partly a ploy on her part to win him over, but the pic isn’t interested in that kind of complexity, or in seeing Ann and C.P. wrestle too much with their choices. C.P.’s wife (Ann Heche) visits Ann to thank her. Soon Ann and C.P. bond over their roles as caring parents and he comes to see her as a person.
C.P.’s big moment seems over the top, but actually happened in real life: He tears up his Klan membership card during the final voting meeting of the charrette. As end titles reveal, the two were friends for the next 30 years. Ann gave the eulogy at his funeral in 2005, and she passed away in 2016.
The movie does not completely avoid white savior territory because in the end it is more C.P’s story than Ann’s. It’s true that he has the dramatic change of heart, but the film too often takes her generous personality for granted. “It’s what I do,” she tells C.P. twice after helping him out, but her character deserves more of an explanation than that.
That lapse is disappointing and limiting, but The Best of Enemies works well enough on its own modest terms. To say, “At least it’s not Green Book” may not seem like much, but at the moment that is something.
Production companies: Astute Films, Rambler Entertainment
Cast: Taraji P. Henson, Sam Rockwell, Babou Ceesay, Anne Heche, Wes Bentley, Nick Searcy
Director-screenwriter: Robin Bissell
Producers: Danny Strong, Fred Bernstein, Matt Berenson, Robin Bissell, Dominique Telson, Tobey Maguire, Matthew Plouffe
Director of photography: David Lanzenberg
Production designer: Jeannine Oppewall
Costume designer: J.R. Hawbaker
Editor: Harry Yoon
Music: Marcelo Zarvos
Casting: Debra Zane, Shayna Markowitz
Rated PG-13, 132 minutes