“THE BEST OF ENEMIES” — 3 stars — Taraji P. Henson, Sam Rockwell, Babou Ceesay, Anne Heche, Wes Bentley; PG-13 (thematic material, racial epithets, some violence and a suggestive reference); in general release; running time: 133 minutes
SALT LAKE CITY — “The Best of Enemies” doesn’t offer much in the way of plot surprises, but Robin Bissell’s based-on-a-true-story tale of two adversaries forced to reconcile their differences on behalf of their community is an effective and thoughtful look at human nature.
Set in 1971 Durham, North Carolina, “Best of Enemies” revolves around two people responsible for negotiating a path to the city’s school integration. Ann Atwater (Taraji P. Henson) is a fiery civil rights activist, head of a group called Operation Breakthrough and known for her bold attitude and take-no-prisoners approach. When we meet her, she’s fighting to give Durham’s black citizens equal housing treatment.
C.P. Ellis (Sam Rockwell) is her polar opposite, president of the local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan’s “invisible empire.” When we meet him, he’s initiating young men into the Klan youth program and firing a shotgun into the home of a local girl who is rumored to have a black boyfriend.
When a fire renders half of the local black elementary school unusable, Durham is forced to finally address the issue of full school integration. Rather than force a decision, North Carolina Judge Leslie Hallford (Tim Ware) instead sends a fix-it man named Bill Riddick (Babou Ceesay) to organize a community charrette — essentially an extended city council summit — that will force the city to negotiate its own solution.
The charrette is to represent both black and white members of the community, and to their frustration, Ellis and Atwater are appointed into the two co-chair positions. To Ellis, the notion of even casual cooperation with Atwater is abhorrent, and she has plenty of reservations of her own.
You don’t have to have seen the “Best of Enemies” trailer to know where this is all headed, and things are pretty predictable right through the third act finale. But Bissell does an excellent job of making the story engaging, largely because he takes care to explore the main characters so fully.
While there are plenty of villainous Klansmen around, the time spent with Ellis is illuminating, and it’s one of his more human vulnerabilities — a son with Down syndrome — that eventually lends to his redemptive character arc. For her part, Atwater has to learn to reign in her own passions, particularly when she and fellow activist Howard Clement (Gilbert Glenn Brown) are forced to consider how best to achieve a righteous purpose.1 comment on this story
Both Rockwell and Henson are ideal for their roles, and both give performances that generate fantastic depth to their characters and complement the charisma of the real-life Ellis and Atwater, who we see briefly in file clips over the closing credits.
The sum total is a film that may not quite rank with the best of the civil rights era films, but one that does an excellent job of digging into human frailties that, when breached, can help us resolve our differences.
Rating explained: “The Best of Enemies” is rated PG-13 for a steady stream of racial epithets, as well as some violence and frightening content.