The Best of Enemies highlights relationship between KKK leader and black activist


Courtesy of STXfilms

Promotional Poster for the Film The Best of Enemies.

It’s one thing to make a film about an African American civil rights activist and a Ku Klux Klan leader discussing school desegregation in a small southern town. It’s another thing if this actually happened.

Based on Osha Gray Davidson’s nonfiction book

“The Best of Enemies: Race and Redemption in the Deep South”, director Billy Kent’s compelling film, dramatizes the strange yet powerful relationship between Ann Atwater and Claiborne Paul “C.P.” Ellis. They co-chaired a committee focused on racially integrating Durham, North Carolina public schools in 1971.

Actress Taraji P. Henson’s raw and emotional performance as Atwater offers unique insight into this powerful African American figure’s struggle to desegregate Durham’s schools. Henson not only portrays Atwater’s commanding presence and no-nonsense language, but also her internal fears for her children with great accuracy.

Likewise, Sam Rockwell’s depiction of Ellis not only inspires intense loathing for this infamous figure, but feelings of sympathy as well. Although a racist, ignorant and bullying Klan leader, he is also a father, husband and poor gas station owner whom no one of affluence takes seriously.

The director does a beautiful job of placing these characters in awkward situations that challenge their ability to tolerate each other. The scene where committee organizer Bill Riddick (Babou Ceesay) assigns them to the same two-person lunch table is both humorous and tense as they say little and avoid eye contact.

This behavior reflects how at first, the only thing Atwater and Ellis think they have in common is their mutual hatred for each other.

The audience knows better. While as different as good and evil on the surface, both characters portray incontrovertible similarities that surprise the viewer.

The two find common ground through their love for their children. Ellis in particular exhibits unexpected tenderness t o w a r d his intellectually disabled son, Larry.

Given his disgust and fear of black , Jewish and other “undesirable” people the audience does not expect him to display such affection for his disabled son.

During one poignant scene that tugs at the viewer’s heartstrings, Ellis strokes Larry’s hair, calls him “pumpkin” and feeds him breakfast. I found Rockwell’s transition from antagonistic Klansman to compassionate father seamless and intriguing.

I also enjoyed his portrayal of Ellis as a complex and troubled individual instead of falling into the role of a stereotypical villain incapable of self-improvement.

Despite his stubborn nature, Ellis learns to compromise with Atwater for the good of the community. Atwater displays a similar capacity for growth when she begins settling for stalemates instead of requiring victories.

Neither Atwater nor Ellis are strangers to poverty and isolation. Atwater struggles the most as a black single mother in a town that detests her skin color, but Ellis clearly feels ashamed of his blue-collar roots and menial job with which barely supports his family of five. He confesses that he always felt like an outsider until joining the Klan.

Becoming a Klansmen allowed Ellis to reaffirm his manhood by insulting, alienating and harming those not from his “pure Aryan race.”

One of the worst things he and his henchmen do is shoot up the house of a white woman dating a black man .

While their intention is to scare rather than murder her, they are still monsters who fear anything different from themselves.

That is, until Ellis learns that he and Atwater aren’t so different after all. The surprising and moving conclusion of The Best of Enemies is worth the drama, but keep in mind that repetitive use of the N-word, some disturbing scenes of violence and sexual harassment are present in this film.
My rating: 9/10.