‘The Best of Enemies’ has a serious perspective problem

Katie Walsh
Tribune News Service
From left,  Sam Rockwell, Babou Ceesay and Taraji P. Henson star in "The Best of Enemies." The movie opens Friday at Regal West Manchester Stadium 13.

Hollywood is having a moment with films based on true stories of American racial strife that make us feel as if social harmony could be possible, if we’re just willing to talk to each other.

Enter “The Best of Enemies,” based on the 1971 true story of school desegregation in Durham, North Carolina, wherein a Ku Klux Klan Exalted Cyclops locked horns with an African-American sharecropper’s daughter and community organizer — and she prevailed. Through the experience, they became lifelong friends. It’s a remarkable message of human connection, but the sanded-down cinematic narrative has a serious perspective problem.

Robin Bissell makes his directorial debut with the film based on the book “The Best of Enemies: Race and Redemption in the New South” by Osha Gray Davidson. The book, written by a white man, was adapted for the screen and directed by a white man, and therein lies the perspective problem — the very uneven story is weighted heavily toward the journey of the redeemed Klansman in the equation, C.P. Ellis, played by Sam Rockwell.

Taraji P. Henson, right, stars in "The Best of Enemies." The movie opens Friday at Regal West Manchester Stadium 13.

The force of nature that is Taraji P. Henson portrays black activist Ann Atwater as a mouthy broad and a fierce advocate for her community. When a local black elementary school goes up in flames, it ignites the debate over school desegregation. Looking to pass the buck, a judge hires Bill Riddick (Babou Ceesay) to organize a “charrette,” a two-week communitywide meeting to workshop ideas and vote on a resolution. Bill promptly presses the fiery Ann and the stalwart C.P. into service as co-chairs, representing their respective communities and their interests.

In “The Best of Enemies,” Bissell has needlessly manipulated the real story, completely missing what makes it significant. Reading the Wikipedia page is far more moving than anything in the disjointed film.

In reality, C.P. and Ann bonded over their struggles in poverty, recognizing their shared oppression under larger capitalistic structures and shared a salvation in gospel music. In Bissell’s script, the two bond when Ann helps C.P. with his developmentally disabled son, and he is inspired by a local Vietnam vet (John Gallagher Jr.) who employs his black Army buddy as manager of his hardware store.

Sam Rockwell stars in "The Best of Enemies." The movie opens Friday at Regal West Manchester Stadium 13.

The connection between C.P. and Ann in the film is tenuous at best. One can see more chemistry in the archival footage that comprises the epilogue.

The changes Bissell makes to the story are overly contrived, and the writing and editing are shaky. Most egregiously, Ann’s perspective is completely underwritten, without any personal history and the single humanizing factor of one daughter, who appears only briefly. The film is skewed toward C.P. and his transformational triumph, which does, in fact, spring from Ann’s relentless, unrecognized effort to reach out to him. And while there are mentions of C.P.’s belief in uplifting the “white working man,” the script ignores the class issues that undergirded the real story.

With “The Best of Enemies,” Bissell offers up the kind of easy-to-digest pablum that provides emotional catharsis and a safe space for white liberals to tut disapprovingly at racism depicted on screen in a performative display of allyship, but it never pushes anyone to question their own role within — and personal benefit from — white supremacist capitalist patriarchy.

These true stories shaped our country, but these kinds of films, which can’t bear the weight of their own structural inequality, have long worn out their welcome.

1.5 stars
Cast: Taraji P. Henson, Sam Rockwell, Babou Ceesay, Anne Heche, John Gallagher Jr.
Directed by Robin Bissell.
Running time: 2 hours, 13 minutes.
Rated PG-13 for thematic material, racial epithets, some violence and a suggestive reference.