By Eleanor Ringel Cater
In a way “The Best of Enemies” could be likened to a made-for-TV version of “The Green Book.” But even if that’s meant as a compliment from a flat-out fan of the recent Oscar winner (which I am), it’s still a bit demeaning. Though the movies share a Civil Rights theme and a first-they-bicker-then-they bond plot, “The Best of Enemies” has its own distinct voice. That’s due, for the most part, to its pair of high-powered stars, Taraji P. Henson and Sam Rockwell.
They play antagonists who butt heads in Durham, North Carolina, circa 1971. She’s Ann Atwater, an irresistible force and fiery activist for black rights. He’s C.P. Ellis, an immovable object who heads the local chapter of the KKK.
They’re brought together by Bill Riddick (Babou Ceesay), a mediator from out-of-town called in when an electrical fire damages the all-black elementary school. The African-Americans don’t want their children attending a burnt-out school; the whites don’t their kids anywhere near blacks. If it were a better world, there’d be no problem, but it wasn’t a better world then (or, some would argue, now).
Riddick asks Ellis and Atwater to co-chair a two-week seminar of sorts, at the end of which, the citizens will vote on whether the black kids can attend the white school. Riddick hopes that getting to know each other will bridge the racial divide, but it doesn’t look likely to happen. Whites and blacks self-segregate immediately, and days later, even with mandated place cards in the cafeteria for lunch, nobody seems to want to give an inch.
How all this resolves itself is hardly surprising, though it’s handled skillfully enough by director Robin Bissell. But the film’s core appeal lies in the chemistry and plain old acting smarts of its leads.
Granted, we’ve seen a version of C.P. before in Rockwell’s Oscar-winning turn in “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri”).
But truth be told, this is a better performance, less farcical and more complex. Being a bigot – and someone actively lauded for being a bigot – doesn’t mean C.P. is stupid. He has that slit-eyed Southern cunning of certain good ’ol boys. C.P. might not like the idea of a conference, but he knows he’s being handed the keys to the possibility of school integration. And he intends to lock the door.
Her copious bosom hanging somewhere between her navel and her knees, the usually glam Henson helps us understand not just the white-hot anger, but also the deep down hurt of being considered less-than-human. And it’s not just for herself she aches, but more importantly, for her kids. In one throwaway moment, she introduces her cheerful, outgoing little girl to C.P. When the child hears his name, her smile melts away, like Little Red Riding Hood in Granny’s cottage.
A definitely rattled C.P. tells his wife (Anne Heche, also fine) about the encounter (“She looked at me like I was a monster.”) Heche replies matter-of-factly, “What did you expect?”
Maybe that’s the power of “The Best of Enemies,” which is more or less based on a true story. It’s exactly what you expect without, well, being exactly what you expect. Yes, in many ways, it’s the same old story (white guy redeemed by noble/courageous/you-name-it black person).
But as far as I can tell, even if that’s only half the equation (gee, blacks were kinda the heroes of Civil Rights), it’s still a story worth telling.