At the end of “The Best of Enemies,” a new historical drama starring Taraji P. Henson and Sam Rockwell, we meet the real-life inspirations for the characters. Like so many based-on-a-true story films that have come before it, it feels as though a documentary about the actual folks would have been more enjoyable than the recreation.
Set in 1971 North Carolina, Henson plays Ann Atwater, an African-American civil rights activist. Her group, Operation Breakthrough, aids local people with legal advice, housing and a multitude of other social concerns. It’s an uphill battle. Atwater often finds herself at odds with the openly racist town council. One member even turns his chair away when Atwater speaks. Providing unofficial support to the council is good-old-boy C.P. Ellis (Rockwell), president of the town’s KKK chapter.
When the council rules to send Black kids back into an unsafe school the NAACP gets involved, forcing the council to bring the issue before a community charrette, essentially a ten day a meeting in which town folk on both sides of the problem come together to debate. Community organizer Bill Riddick (Babou Ceesay) chooses two unlikely co-chairs, Atwater and Ellis. Both are unsure if they can work together but the stakes are too high on either side for them to decline the invitation. “Riddick is about to hand the keys to school integration,” says town official Carvie Oldham (Bruce McGill), “and you are going to lock the door.”
After a tense start the sworn enemies find common ground. Despite her personal feelings for Ellis, Atwater responds to his family situation with empath and compassion. Ellis begins to acknowledge the frustration and helplessness of the people he has held in such little regard for his entire life.
“The Best of Enemies,” comes with the best of intentions. Writer-director Robin Bissell details the lives of the two main characters but, it must be asked, How, in a movie about school integration, is the focus on Ellis? It seems tone deaf to present a story of integration in schools that features a climactic speech by a KKK president. Ellis’s life is presented in detail. We learn about his family life, business and spend time inside several KKK gatherings, including one where he is named the region’s Exulted Cyclops. Trouble is, we don’t get the same info on Atwater. Henson does an admirable job of breathing life into the character but Atwater is more or less treated like a supporting player in her own story.
It’s not to say “The Best of Enemies” doesn’t have some interesting moments. Civil rights icon Howard Clement (Gilbert Glenn Brown) delivers a stirring speech detailing a parent’s love for their child, adding “our kids have a whole different menu of pain to deal with.” In smaller moments like that the film’s message of bridge building and empathy ring loud and clear. It is just a shame that this historically significant tale suffers from a skewed POV and predictable plotting.