The best of enemies: black and white race relations portrayed in shades of grey

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Based on a true story, The best of enemies centres on the unlikely relationship between Ann Atwater, an outspoken civil rights activist, and CP Ellis, a local Ku Klux Klan leader who reluctantly co-chaired a community summit, battling over the desegregation of schools in Durham, North Carolina, during the racially charged summer of 1971. The incredible events that unfolded would change Durham and the lives of Atwater and Ellis forever.

The best of enemies has the best of intentions, but they’re derailed by a problematic perspective and a disappointing lack of insight.” That is the consensus on www.rottentomatoes.com, which gives the film a lowly 54%. I read every “top critic” review on the site, and here’s my take. This film is not judged on its movie merits, but on its supposedly “problematic” view on race relations (as other utterly awful films have been awarded near cult status over their more popular perspectives).

Very little is written about the actual ingredients that make for a good movie, ingredients which The best of enemies has in spades. The styling is flawless, from Ann’s low-slung bosom to CP’s pants riding up over his hips. The slow tracking shots hold you, and the colour grading perfectly recreates the ’70s. The acting is superb all round. The music is carefully selected, not to overwhelm, but to add to scenes – look out for the lyrical Roy Orbison track lending an even more haunting feel to the Klan shooting up some girl’s house. There are very few unnecessary scenes in the 132 running minutes. The slow pace gives you time to get to know the characters (in varying degrees), but is never ever boring.

Both CP Ellis and Ann Atwood are portrayed as violent, crazy and hateful, at times. They are also portrayed as being capable of enormous tenderness and empathy towards others. CP’s treatment of his mentally disabled son will move you, as will Ann’s battle to find a school for her daughter. They are flawed, and ultimately nuanced, characters, something which some critics believe a white supremacist should not be afforded. (Three billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri was criticised for the same treatment of Officer Jason Dixon.) Of course, CP is the racist bigot who needs to undergo the biggest change, versus Ann just needing to communicate better. Thus, the film focuses more on CP, apparently another faux pas.

As James Berardinelli of Reelviews notes, you could go the “Spike Lee route”, and make a raw, in-your-face, blood-and-guts film about race relations. There’s nothing wrong with that. Jungle fever (1991) and American history X (1998) haunt me to this day. But isn’t there room for a different approach? One that allows for some subtlety, even a bit of humour? The best of enemies is at its strongest in the subtle moments. When Ann needs to replace the infamous Klan hoodie on a doll, the vulnerability and horror she displays are gut-wrenching. When Ann introduces her young daughter to CP, the daughter shows a similar vulnerability and horror when she realises who he is.

One of the subtlest and strongest moments comes in the form of a conversation between Ann and CP’s wife, Mary (Anne Heche). Larry, their disabled son, is given a roommate, and he freaks out. CP cannot afford to move him to a private room. Ann pulls a few strings and makes it happen. Mary pays her a visit to say thank you. As she leaves, she turns and says to Ann, “CP is doing his best.” The age-old excuse. From Ann’s expression, it is clear that “his best” is not good enough, and it won’t placate Ann. Yet, Ann has the grace to let it go.

Ann might have less screen time than CP, but Taraji P Henson owns every centimetre of it when she is on camera. There is a particularly poignant scene where she comes home, puts down her bag, fetches sweet tea from the fridge and sits down at the kitchen table. The camera follows her from a distance, and she sits down with her back to it. The camera slowly circles around her to show tears quietly streaming down her face. The scene of this powerful, loud, “rough house” Annie, as she was called, sitting and letting it all get to her, is more powerful than some in-your-face, blood-and-guts sequences I have seen.

The best of enemies is not a brilliant film, it is not a ground-breaking film, but it does not deserve to be tanked, either. Sure, the writer/director took some creative licence with the story; the end is too neat, and even borders on being a tad schmaltzy, but it is still a solid effort. I will give it a 7/10. It is thoughtful, it is funny and it does not shy away from cold-hearted bigotry.

CP and Ann became friends and toured universities to tell others of their joint experience. Their friendship spanned 30 years, until CP’s death in 2015. Guess who gave the eulogy?

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