“The Best Of Enemies”

 

            It's based on a true story, and by the time the “real” characters make their cameo appearances during the credits, we're ready to meet them.  Because these two individuals would be the least likely to ever have anything to do with each other.  But circumstances forced them into it.  And they both changed because of it.  Despite themselves.

            C.P. Ellis (Sam Rockwall) is a gas station owner in Durham, North Carolina, in 1971.  He's also the head of the local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan.  Though we all shudder through the re-enactment of a Klan meeting, they don't make C.P. Ellis a complete monster.  He has a loving wife and four children, one of whom is severely developmentally challenged, and currently institutionalized.  But C.P.faithfully goes to visit his son, and it's obvious that he loves him, and wants him to feel safe, and provided for. 

            Ann Atwater (Taraji P. Henson) is a local organizer;  an active advocate for civil rights in a Deep South town.  She wears the chip on her shoulder proudly.  She's not at all afraid to storm City Hall in protest of substandard housing conditions.  And she's also quite willing to lead the citizens' demands for school integration, especially after the still-segregated black school suffered a fire with significant structural damage.  She's glad to meet with some NAACP attorneys to file a suit in federal court.  What she doesn't expect is for the Judge to agree to hire a community mediator named Bill Riddick (Babou Ceesay), who comes in with his chalkboards and focus groups and panel discussions.  He suggests a bold gambit: the co-chairs of the steering committee will be Ann Atwater and C.P. Ellis, the two people who seem to be at the most extreme ends of the spectrum.  The thinking goes that if they can figure something out together, everybody else will rejoice and embrace it.  Of course, it's not that simple. But there's a significant shift when C.P.   goes to visit the white man who owns the hardware store about hiring a black man as his manager.  The owner tells him that during his two tours of Vietnam, that black man had his back.  C.P., who didn't go to Vietnam, had to respect that.

            Writer and Director Robin Bissell constructs two searing instances of Klan-type intimidation, one involving shooting out the windows of a woman's home, and the other a sexually-oriented personal harrassment.  But at the same time as we see hate and racism at its worst, we are also witnessing the one thing that brings any hope to real, effective change:  the transformation of people's attitudes.  Both Sam Rockwall and Taraji P. Henson are master actors at the top of their game, and the the ways they demonstrate their characters' inner tensions is remarkable acting, without over-the-top melodrama.  They are not only convincing individually, but they create fireworks in their scenes together. 

            At the end, we have hope that maybe, someday, if we keep talking to each other long enough, and start to care about one another enough, we just might figure this out.  But it's going to take the hardest type of change:  change of heart.

 

Dr. Ronald P. Salfen, DfW Film Critics Association