The Best of Enemies

Opening Friday, Apr. 5

The Best of Enemies chronicles the true story of the unique partnership between Ann Atwater (Taraji P. Henson), a Black community organizer and anti-poverty advocate, and C.P. Ellis (Sam Rockwell), a Ku Klux Klan leader, as Durham tackled the critical issue of school segregation. Their friendship is an enticing narrative, especially as the nation continues to struggle with racial reconciliation—perhaps too enticing. Unfortunately, The Best of Enemies has some of the same issues that surrounded Green Book. Atwater deserved better.  

The story begins in 1971, when a Black public school underwent a fire. By that time, racial segregation of public schools was unconstitutional, but the Supreme Court had not specified how schools should be integrated. Instead, it directed local courts and school boards to desegregate with “all deliberate speed.”

Many Southern cities, including Durham, defied the judicial demand and maintained school segregation for decades. The city council made the students stay in the damaged building rather than transferring them to a white school nearby—a decision supported by the Klan, which used violent scare tactics against anyone who opposed segregation. But parents and community members still had the courage to protest. The most vocal and fearless of them all was Ann Atwater.

An outside mediator was tasked with finding a resolution, and Atwater and Ellis, seemingly polar opposites, were elected to co-chair a charrette. They’d known of each other for nearly a decade, as adversaries on opposite sides of the picket line, before they were forced to sit down and work together for a common good. No one, especially the two of them, imagined that they would become lifelong friends.

Initially, Ellis’s role was to represent the anti-integration perspective. Throughout the film, he is combative and hostile toward Atwater. Likewise, Atwater hated everything Ellis stood for. But when they were forced to work together, they learned that they shared common ground as parents who wanted the best for their children. Through this commonality, Ellis’s disposition slowly shifted.

Based on Osha Gray Davidson’s 1996 book, The Best of Enemies was directed, written, and produced by Robin Bissell. Dramatizing historical events for a feature film always poses the challenge of maintaining the facts while creating an entertaining experience, filled with the requisite humorous and heart-tugging scenes. And, as is so often the case in Hollywood, Bissell’s lens is clouded by whiteness, so his film centers on Ellis’s growth and oversimplifies Atwater’s struggles. Her role is to catapult Ellis’s change of heart, short-changing Atwater’s story.

The difference between Atwater’s static storyline and Ellis’s dynamic storyline is evident. Henson embodies the fullness of her character’s presence through her merits as an actor, but the filmmaker only makes us privy to Atwater’s public life as a tenacious woman fighting unjust systems. We rarely see her personal life. We know she’s the mother of two daughters—but who are her friends? What did she do in her spare time? Who did she love? What moments of joy did she cherish?

These omissions wouldn’t be as glaring if the portrayal of Ellis focused only on his life as a gas-station owner by day and an exalted Klansman by night. But instead, the filmmaker lifts the hood and invites us into Ellis’s home, portraying him as a man who worked tirelessly to support his wife and children and asking us to wrestle with his humanity. This is jarring, juxtaposed with very few scenes of Ellis committing acts of terror with the Klan.

In recent years, Hollywood producers have shown increased interest in exploring triumphant stories of racial reconciliation; the Oscar-winning Green Book received both accolades for making the audience feel good and criticism for its lack of authenticity. It’s indicative of a Hollywood machine that cranks out buoyant tales of redemption from racism to assuage white guilt, meanwhile perpetuating the erasure of the full humanity—the love, pain, and happiness—of Black people.

By showing Atwater only as the devoted, overextended community worker, The Best of Enemies perpetuates the “strong Black woman” trope that can create pressure for them not to experience or show their vulnerability and struggles. In Their Eyes Were Watching God, Zora Neale Hurston refers to this depiction of Black women as the mules of the world, carrying its burdens on their shoulders. Certainly, Atwater did carry the burdens of others, including Ellis. But it would have been wise of Bissell to take care in capturing her full life, too.