The Best of Enemies (2019)


Bil’s rating (out of 5): BBB

USA, 2019, Screenplay by , based on the book by Cinematography by Produced by , , , , , Music by Production Design by Costume Design by Film Editing by .

The incredible true story that sounds like Hollywood fantasy: civil rights activist Ann Atwater (played here by Taraji P. Henson) isn’t afraid to speak her mind in any situation, the latest at the beginning of this movie being her taking issues with racist landlords to the courts of Durham, North Carolina and telling the honourable judges exactly what she thinks of their laws. C.P. Ellis (Sam Rockwell) is a struggling gas station owner whose ascension to the role of president of his local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan is the proud achievement that soothes the personal pain of seeing his eldest, mentally challenged, son living in a care home that he pays a great deal of money for. These two have no love lost between them, but are forced to find a way to communicate when the NAACP sues the town for not having integrated its schools, and the powers that be send in consultant Bill Riddick () to organize a charrette that will allow for the entire town on either side of the debate the opportunity to resolve their differences. Riddick chooses Ellis to represent those resisting change and Atwater to stand for those promoting it, and as the days pass, the players dig their heels in and fear mounts as the town prepares for either the daunting possibility that nothing will change, or the destabilizing fear of dealing with the fact that it might. Life outside the debates progresses and the characters have unintentional interactions, including Atwater’s connecting with Ellis’ wife (an excellent ), and Ellis beginning to question the wisdom of the kind of trouble he is part of creating for his fellow citizens. While it sounds like the opportunity for shameless sentimentality (even the poster looks like it’s got a song by Dianne Warren in it), the experience avoids manipulation to an almost alarming extent: director Robin Bissell seems unaware of what constitutes an important moment and never allows music to swell around any kind of emotional climax, leaving the audience to glean the intelligent and poignant delicacies from what is otherwise an overlong and rarely remarkable experience. Unlike other movies about combating racial issues, this one gives plenty of room to considerations of class, and never makes the mistake of simplifying the horrors of American history by insinuating that we’d all get along if only we’d get to know each other better. A key scene in which Heche asks her husband about what fight he’ll become obsessed after this one’s over is spot on, as is the notable scene in which Atwater tells a group of young black men desecrating the KKK display in the courthouse that the pamphlets on the table are a window into a world and an opportunity they should not ignore. These nuggets of intelligence, unfortunately, are combined with awkward casting, Rockwell’s sympathy is far too obvious and it’s hard to believe him as a hard-line white supremacist, while Henson would have been better off ignoring the fact that she has no physical resemblance to the much more portly Atwater; putting her in fake breasts and a fat suit has the unintentional result of making her look more like Tyler Perry’s Madea than a remarkable figure in Civil Rights history. This is the story about a miracle of friendship that arose in the most unlikeliest place, and it never pretends to understand how it happened, which makes its better moments that much more precious to behold.

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