The Best of Enemies is about the joining of a Ku Klux Klan leader, C.P. Ellis (Sam Rockwell), and community activist, Ann Atwater (Taraji P. Henson), who must work together in deciding the fate of desegregation in a 1971 Durham, North Carolina school system.
For Ann Atwater, her main priority is protecting the rights of her community and ensuring that their basic human needs are met. Henson embodies that pursuit best with her insistent hand gestures and her adapted southern style throughout the film. It is also the sharpness in her tone that helps us believe in the work that she does.
The real trouble begins when a fire breaks out in an all-black school and the students are forced to attend other schools in the area. The school at stake is, of course, an all-white school where C.P. Ellis’ kids attend.
The KKK associates and all other members of this society quarrel about the impracticality of such integration. Ellis’ kids are already not receiving the attention they need in their classroom, while the black students are not even up to speed in said curriculum. Their textbooks are a year behind and so are they.
Both sides are then forced to cooperate in a structured charrette, or week-long conference, where ideas are mapped out, expressed, and later voted upon.
Eventually, in the process, both C.P. Ellis and Ann Atwater learn that they have more in common than they know. And once each side learns to engage in effective communication, that is, listening without judging, and speaking without putting one down, they are at least able to cooperate for the sake of entertaining the charrette rules and regulations.
Later, Ann Atwater’s compassion for C.P. Ellis develops when she learns about their shared feeling of helplessness. She overhears one of his conversations and pulls a favor to get C.P.’s son, who is in a special needs center, to have a private room. When C.P. finds out, he confronts Ann with a sense of self-righteousness that reads as comical. It is the beginning of his heart melting and the mark of the two seeing each other as human beings.
The film has a few comical moments, especially with the interactions between C.P. Ellis and Ann Atwater who are reluctant on collaborating until their shared space creates an atmosphere of understanding where one can look deeply into the eyes of the other.
There’s a scene when C.P. Ellis meets Ann’s daughter and her facial expression is based upon her conflict in reconciling a formal meeting with a Klansman. In like manner, whenever C.P. and Ann are forced into each other’s personal space, it reads as comical despite the racial and prejudices tensions that once separated them.
Once the charrette is down to the determining vote, C.P. unsurprisingly votes for the integration of blacks and whites in schools. He clearly articulates his stance about helping others and how a black woman (Ann Atwater) helped him. He makes striking connections between his involvement in the KKK–and what they “stand for”–compared to the justice for all citizens of all classes.
After publicly resigning from his position in the KKK, he takes a deep look within at what’s important for humanity to survive and his whole world is shaped around that new perspective.
Rockwell does a great job demonstrating the battle within and the fight C.P. has with himself once he does eventually discover right from wrong. At times, Rockwell paints C.P.’s social responsibility as the only thing left for him to hold on to. However, the influence he has over his people prevails in a positive way.
The most compelling scene is the final scene where C.P.’s new black customers outweigh the loss of his white customers. There was a time when C.P. would not even serve gas to black people and by the end of the film, there’s a line of cars full of black drivers and passengers, who crowd the street and pile into C.P.’s gas station.
Overall, the film is quite predictable given the nation’s history, but it is the chemistry between Henson and Rockwell that stands out. White and black, male and female, the two seem to be on the opposite ends of every reality lived in the U.S. at that time. But as Henson and Rockwell work their way through the story, we begin to see the layers of judgment peel off more and more as the movie progresses. And even if only for a few hours, we are hopeful about mankind’s lovingness based on the acting from both Taraji P.Henson and Sam Rockwell.
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