For the last several years, Hollywood films have been trying to convince us that race relations in the United States can be resolved if 1) a black man goes on a road trip with a racist white man, 2) a white Nazi falls in love with a black German girl, or 3) a black domestic worker bakes a pie made out of feces for her racist employer. And that’s just the shortlist of basic solutions Hollywood has concocted. So it should come as no surprise that we have yet another film that simplifies the issue by asking the question: Have we just tried talking to each other?
That’s exactly where writer-director Robin Bissell goes in “The Best of Enemies,” which urges audiences to see the value of a brutally honest debate between two very opposing sides in 1971 North Carolina. Based on actual events (and the book by Osha Gray Davidson), the film tells the story of the unexpected friendship between black activist Ann Atwater (Taraji P. Henson) and C.P. Ellis (Sam Rockwell), the Exalted Cyclops of the Ku Klux Klan. Yes, you read that right. Before you question it, know that the film weaves actual video footage documenting the pair’s friendship (including evidence that Ann was even there for C.P. when he got sick, and the two jokingly recounting how they used to hate each other).
Though the narrative takes place years after the landmark Brown v. Board of Education ruling, school integration was still up for debate as black students are forced to return to their school soon after it caught on fire because white schools refuse to accept them. Racial tensions between black and white people are intensified, and Ann, a single mother of two, and C.P. found themselves at the center of it. In fact, when we meet Ann, she’s fussing with local government officials because black residents’ complaints about holes in their walls and toilet leaks have gone completely ignored. She’s sick and tired of the runaround while at the same time feeling equal parts fired-up and utterly helpless.
This is juxtaposed with C.P.’s empathetic story of a white man working an honest job, trying to feed his family and provide a good education for his kids. But he’s also a white supremacist. Bissell makes an obvious storytelling decision early on in the film to synchronize both Ann and C.P.’s struggles, though it’s hard to empathize with a man whose real-life voice we hear over the opening credits basking in the brotherhood of the KKK.
So the film’s agenda is made clear right away: These two characters are essentially separate but equal. Except not, obviously. The pair is compelled to unite when local officials arrange a “charrette,” essentially a debate between the two leaders to argue about school segregation. The weeks-long discussions force the bigoted C.P. and other white-power leaders to sit in the same room with Ann and other black activists, though both parties are equally disgusted with one another. But as the true story goes, after getting to know Ann more, and better understanding black humanity, C.P. turns over a new leaf and votes to allow the displaced black students to share classrooms with his own kids. Reminder: this charrette takes place over the course of only a few weeks, yet that is enough time to reform C.P.
“The Best of Enemies” is the kind of feel-good story Hollywood loves, coming at a time when racial tensions remain as high as ever and, unlike in this movie, nary a solution has been established as people continue to argue in another open forum called social media. But the way the film implores its audience to see the humanity of both Ann’s allies and the Klansmen reflects a cringeworthy image of Donald Trump saying, in the aftermath of the 2017 white nationalist protest in Charlottesville, that there were “some very fine people on both sides.” It’s reductive, despite the film’s claims to the contrary.
But we’re supposed to focus on the outcome: a racist who reforms and the friendship that blossoms between two unlikely people, an oh-so-tired logline. That’s fair, although hardly anything new. And while we see C.P.’s family life throughout most of the film — including parenting an intellectually-disabled son — we don’t see as much of that with Ann, who in real life left her abusive husband with their two kids in tow. It would have been nice to see some of her backstory so that she doesn’t come across as merely bitter and angry. Obviously she had every right to be, but Ann also has a vulnerability that we rarely get to see, which is a crucial facet of presenting multidimensional characters of color. C.P. has complexity while Ann, barring a few brief shades that emerge, does not.
Both lead performances, despite the mundane narrative, are solid, highlighting as many layers as they’re given in the script. But Henson’s performance is hampered by her awkward casting as a woman who was significantly larger in size. The actress tries to change her walk to reflect that, but it looks cartoonish; it’s also clear that she is wearing padding across her chest to make her appear bigger. J.R. Hawbaker’s (“The Revenant”) more modest costumes — which identify Ann as a woman living at the poverty line, who often handmade her own clothes, as well as her daughters’ — give Henson a strange shape, which is further aggravated by a very obvious wig. Visually, it comes off as careless, underscoring the lack of attention paid to Ann’s portrayal, despite Henson’s full commitment.
“The Best of Enemies” tries to remind us that simple solutions might exist if we could open our minds, but it undercuts itself by shortchanging its black female lead and ending on a very maudlin note that lacks punch.