Less than two months after Green Book won Best Picture at the Academy Awards, Hollywood delivers yet another period piece of heartwarming racial reconciliation with The Best of Enemies. Moreover, this tale about an unlikely friendship is another clear-cut white savior narrative—the twist being that, this time around, the savior is a president of the Ku Klux Klan!
As if that didn’t complicate matters enough, The Best of Enemies is also based on a true story. Adapted from Osha Gray Davidson’s 1996’s book The Best of Enemies: Race and Redemption in the New South, writer/director Robin Bissell’s film concerns the legitimate miracle that took place in Durham, North Carolina, in 1971, when (inevitable spoiler alert) “Exalted Cyclops” C.P. Ellis (Sam Rockwell) tore up his KKK membership card and voted in favor of school integration. His act stunned his white-power brethren, as well as his adversaries—chief among them civil rights activist Ann Atwater (Taraji P. Henson), who served alongside Ellis as co-chair of a 10-day official community summit known as a “charrette” designed to reach a resolution on the integration issue. It was an honest-to-goodness come-to-Jesus moment for Ellis, and cemented a lifelong bond with Atwater, who spent the ensuing decades touring the country giving speeches with Ellis, and who eulogized the man at his 2015 funeral.
Veracity is certainly the best thing The Best of Enemies has going for it, since its action would seem wholly contrived were it not true. As it stands, it only seems partially contrived, thanks to the collection of cornball speeches, perfunctory montages and underlined soundtrack songs it employs to dramatize everything in dully standard terms. More troublesome than its formulaic corniness, however, is its fundamental focus, which should be evenly split between its two protagonists, and yet is heavily weighted in favor of Ellis. It’s a redemption saga in which the individual who guarantees school integration—thereby becoming a civil rights hero in the process—isn’t the woman who fought tooth-and-nail against evil white racists, but the reasonable KKK bigwig who finally found it within himself to grant African-Americans the rights they deserved.
This isn’t to claim that The Best of Enemies gets the particulars wrong; on the contrary, its primary plot points seem to approximate the historical record. Rather, it’s a question of storytelling emphasis—something not uncommon for a movie featuring Rockwell as a likable, and soon-to-see-the-light, racist. I’m referring, of course, to Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, which netted Rockwell an Oscar. Like that film, Bissell’s work has the actor spew lots of ugly verbal venom while sanding his character’s roughest edges so he remains palatable, and capable of being redeemed in the eyes of both his compatriots and audience members. Though he’s the president of his KKK chapter, the worst Rockwell’s Ellis does is shoot up the house of a white woman who’s apparently dating a black man. And even then, he makes sure she’s upstairs before he and his cronies (including Wes Bentley) blast away at her first floor, thus ensuring no one gets hurt.
Otherwise, Ellis is presented as your average working-class family man, trying to provide for his KKK-disapproving wife (Anne Heche) and his kids, who just like Atwater’s daughters, aren’t getting a great education. That’s the primary means by which The Best of Enemies parallels the duo, although the film also makes sure to underline that they’re both poor and fiercely committed to their convictions (Atwater is known as “Roughhouse Annie”). Those details may be accurate, but they’re designed to equate the two—to put them on the same level—which is disingenuous at best, and bullshit at worst, since one of them is a virulent hatemonger and the other is a brave crusader.
The Best of Enemies aims to portray Ellis and Atwater as alike because that’s precisely what Ellis needs to learn through his contentious time participating in the charrette. And to be sure, there’s validity to the notion that tolerance is bred from people of different backgrounds conversing and commingling, whether in public or private. The problem is the lengths to which Bissell, who is white, goes to make one root for Ellis—which, however unavoidable that might be given the story at hand, winds up feeling wrong for a pro-civil rights film.
That’s most evident in a subplot about Ellis caring for an institutionalized Down syndrome-afflicted son. The Best of Enemies strives to garner sympathy via the sight of Ellis singing “Happy Birthday” to the developmentally disabled boy over a candlelit cake. The film then goes further by depicting a temporary crisis born from the kid’s panic over being forced to share his space with a strange new roommate whom he believes to be a monster. It’s a groan-worthy metaphorical scenario that speaks to Ellis’ own plight (later, Ellis even says that others think of him as a “monster”). Though Bissell somehow manages to botch this thread’s resolution in a thematically consistent and logical manner—ultimately, the solution turns out to be segregating the boy in his own quarters (?!?)—it nonetheless resounds as an egregiously manipulative device.
Rockwell underplays Ellis’ ugliness at every opportunity; he doesn’t come across as a cartoon, mercifully, but he also doesn’t resonate as a persuasive KKK leader either. Atwater, on the other hand, is relegated to second-fiddle status, which squanders Henson’s pleasurable scowl-heavy turn. The rest of the cast, including Babou Ceesay as charrette organizer Bill Riddick, and Bruce McGill as a villainous city council leader, hit their rote beats. Still, Bissell’s script grants them only one personality trait apiece and, like Atwater herself, they aren’t afforded any room to develop, or change.
Transformation, and consequently center stage, is reserved solely for Rockwell’s Ellis. After being forced to eat with Atwater, and chatting with a Vietnam Vet who hires African-Americans to run his hardware store, Ellis realizes the error of his ethos, and promptly does a dramatic about-face. His final moment of triumph pulls at the heartstrings, as do the ensuing end-credit clips of the real-life Ellis and Atwater talking about their enduring relationship. Yet in light of the fact that the preceding two hours have neutered Ellis of his truly rancid nature—the better to render him a civil rights emancipator in a white hood—such manufactured uplift leaves a sour taste in one’s mouth.