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Cottonwood Heights Journal

Dan's Review: "The Best of Enemies" offers hope for a divided society

Apr 04, 2019 05:54PM ● By Dan Metcalf

Sam Rockwell and Taraji P. Henson in The Best of Enemies - © 2019 STX Films.

The Best of Enemies (STX Films)

Rated PG-13 for thematic material, racial epithets, some violence, and a suggestive reference.

Starring Taraji P. Henson, Sam Rockwell, Babou Ceesay, Anne Heche, Wes Bentley, Bruce McGill, John Gallagher Jr., Nick Searcy, Sope Aluko, Carson Holmes.

Written by Robin Bissell, based on "The Best of Enemies: Race and Redemption in the New South" by Osha Gray Davidson.

Directed by Robin Bissell.


Racism. It’s always there, even when it seems society has progressively changed for the better. One constant reminder of the United States racist past is the film industry, offering up several glimpses of our history, depicting real situations that might trigger shame or embarrassment. One such film is The Best of Enemies, the (mostly) true story of Ann Atwater and C.P. Ellis, two people who overcame racial differences as the country transitioned out the Civil Rights movement into the modern age. 

The story takes place in the spring and summer of 1971. Atwater (Taraji P. Henderson) is a Durham, N.C. civil rights leader working the system for fair housing and helping the black community rise from poverty. C.P. Ellis (Sam Rockwell) is the local Ku Klux Klan leader, bent on keeping the last vestiges of segregation alive. The two diametrically-opposed players are thrown together when the courts force Durham leaders to integrate black and white students into the public school system. The pair are asked by court-appointed organizer Bill Riddick (Babou Cesay) to participate as co-chairs in a series of “charrettes” or meetings in which people from opposing sides would work together on a resolution to carry out the order. Atwater and Ellis are immediately antagonistic toward each other but eventually find some common ground. Over time, Ellis begins to see the world from a different viewpoint yet continues in his loyalty to the KKK. When white supremacist leaders and KKK members fear that they may lose in their battle to keep schools segregated, they begin to intimidate voting members of the council. Meanwhile, Atwater commits an act of kindness toward Ellis, whose son lives in a mental institution. When Ellis’ wife Mary (Anne Heche) shows gratitude to Atwater, some of KKK faithful begin to worry over their leader’s loyalty. When the council brings an integration resolution up for a vote, Ellis makes a bold move that will change his fortunes and the path of civil rights in Durham.

The Best of Enemies tackles racism a little differently than other films with similar themes. On the plus side, the movie shows how hate and bigotry can be overcome one relationship at a time, even when circumstances are less-than-ideal. The chemistry between Henderson and Rockwell is genuine, offering up more than a few touching and humorous moments. On the minus side, the movie takes several liberties on the real story of Atwater and Ellis’ relationship and the history surrounding the effort to desegregate their community. The script could have used a few tweaks as well.

The greater appeal of The Best of Enemies is a glimpse of how people can work out differences and learn to respect and love each other, rather than the extreme examples of racial failures that dominate the current public discourse. If a KKK leader and a civil rights activist can become great friends, then why can’t more of us?  The Best of Enemies reminds me of Robert Duvall and James Earl Jones’ 1996 classic A Family Thing, another film with a similar circumstance in which two people of differing racial backgrounds overcome their prejudices by getting to know one another and discovering common ground. I highly recommend both films to those who long for more civil discourse.

"The Best of Enemies" Trailer