In a world where a movie like “Green Book” can be raked over the coals for the (alleged) crime of being a quaintly retrograde, patronizing-to-the-point-of-seeming-racist film (for the record, I thought it was none of that), “The Best of Enemies,” another middlebrow inspirational drama about a black person and a white person who start off as sniping adversaries, only to work their way toward a redemptive glow of mutual understanding, feels like a film that a number of people could have the knives out for. And maybe they will. It’s based on a true story, but when you hear the premise the movie almost sounds like it could be a “Saturday Night Live” parody of an odd-couple drama of racial healing.
Set in Durham, North Carolina, in 1971, “The Best of Enemies” centers around a two-week-long meeting/discussion/powwow of ordinary citizens on the subject of school integration that brought together members of the black and white communities — and, most dramatically, its two co-chairmen, Ann Atwater (Taraji P. Henson), a local firebrand of a Civil Rights activist, and Claiborne Paul “C.P.” Ellis (Sam Rockwell), the head of the Durham chapter of the Ku Klux Klan.
You watch “The Best of Enemies” and think: Is this really going to be the story of an avowed white supremacist, the sort of man who leads cross burnings and gun-blasting raids, who in a little over two hours of screen time sees his evil ideas fade and his icy heart melt to humanity? Well, yes, it is. (And pigs can fly, and Donald Trump intended his tax cut to help the middle class.) You can feel just how much this film is going to be hated in some quarters, and what those critics will say: that in 2019, the last thing America needs is a message movie about a Klansman who turns into a liberal Teddy bear. To me, though, what’s even more eyebrow-raising is that the film makes the transformation convincing.
While hardly a “white savior” movie, “The Best of Enemies” is yet another drama in which the cause of racial justice becomes a way for a white person to “grow.” In its very form, the film turns the primal sin of American racism into a “symmetrical” black/white problem. It also unfolds in a comfortably distant past (in this case, nearly 50 years ago), when the prospect of a dyed-in-the-wool racist coming to embrace school integration is designed to make us feel good — even as our own era presents a tangle of racial conflict that’s not nearly so easily resolvable. (This echoes one of the criticisms of “Green Book”: that it embedded racism in a design of nostalgia.) Toss in a lump-in-the-throat ending and you have a recipe for…what? A film to attack as morally myopic?
Except that “The Best of Enemies,” while not nearly as good as “Green Book,” is a rock-solid movie: squarely deliberate, a little long and predictable, but honest and thoughtful enough, precise in its period and locale, with very strong performances. It may have a sentimental structure, but in tone it overlaps more than a bit with Spike Lee’s “BlacKkKlansman,” because it’s driven by a comparable impulse: to show the sickness of racism from the inside out.
Considering that it was just two years ago that Sam Rockwell was celebrated for playing a racist cop who undergoes a similar conversion in “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” (a character that was also criticized, in a warmup to the wokeness that greeted “Green Book”), you may wonder why he took on this role so soon afterward. Yet as you watch the performance you stop wondering: Even more than “Three Billboards,” “The Best of Enemies” is a study of the American racist mind-set.
Rockwell’s C.P. is a chunky aging redneck family man who runs a filling station and feels, deep down, like one of life’s losers — or, at least, he did until he joined the Klan. By his own description, becoming part of that brotherhood of hate gave him purpose, solidarity, a cause higher than himself. He leads a life of quiet desperation, struggling to raise three quarrelsome kids (he also has a mentally impaired son who lives in the local psychiatric hospital), but in the Klan he’s both a leader and the twisted version of a life coach, presiding over legions of angry white men (who are well cast; they look disturbingly ordinary) as well as a youth corps that he introduced to the organization.
Early on, there’s one off note: C.P. and his Klan buddies shoot up the home of a white woman who is dating a man they refer to by using the N-word (which gets thrown around a lot in this movie), and the writer-director, Robin Bissell, scores the scene to Roy Orbison’s “Blue Bayou,” giving it a pulp kick that feels out of place. But we get the point: C.P. isn’t just a hater — he’s a man of violence.
So why would an avowed white supremacist who lives to spread terror agree to attend a civilized black-meets-white détente community summit like the one in “The Best of Enemies”? Because he feels like he has no choice. After an electrical fire threatens to shut down a local black elementary school, the issue of school integration rears its head (it is, after all, the law of the land), and C.P. feels that attending the meeting will give him a better shot at sustaining segregation than not attending it. As a Klan leader, he’s connected to the head of the City Council (Bruce McGill) and to local business, and he represents the feelings of a significant subset of the white community. (That his Klan identity is an open secret speaks volumes.)
The reason that the meeting — called a “charrette” — gets organized in the first place is that a local judge knows he can’t get away with issuing a ruling against integration. So he calls in Bill Riddick (Babou Ceesay), a black community organizer from Raleigh who has already orchestrated charrettes in various places. They aren’t, by the strictest measure, legal proceedings, yet they’re examples of democracy in action: a way for a city to take its own temperature on a hot-button issue, and progress, almost therapeutically, in the process.
In “The Best of Enemies,” the charrette is actually a bit of a fake-out. It pretends to be a seminar of ideas, but the movie doesn’t show us a lot of the discussion, and it doesn’t need to, because that’s mostly a pretext to get two racial communities who have only barely integrated sitting down and talking to one another. It’s a social experiment masquerading as a think tank.
Ann and C.P. have been squabbling for years, and it’s not hard to see why. It’s been close to two decades since the launch of the Civil Rights era, and she’s the kind of activist who will hit a white city council member with a telephone because she’s so driven by her impatience at the unkept promises. Taraji P. Henson, in a sagging bosom and shaggy Afro, changes her whole aspect; she makes Ann a scowling everyday warrior driven by a fury that’s never far from depression. She doesn’t give speeches — she lashes out. Yet her rage at the treatment of her people is so great that the words, without trying to, attain a scabrous, torn-and-bleeding eloquence. This is what true activism looks like, or once did. It’s a cry from the (broken) heart.
Ann needs no journey of enlightenment. But C.P does, and Bissell, adapting portions of a non-fiction book by Osha Gray Davidson, charts C.P.’s psychological journey like a workaday Stations of the Cross. It helps that Ann and C.P. spend just about the entire film keeping up the dislike; there’s no false warming. (When they’re seated at the same lunch table, they can barely hold a conversation.) But she pulls strings to get his son a private room at the hospital (mostly as a manipulative gift), and what starts to turn C.P.’s mind is his observation of the tactics used to intimidate the charrette committee of 12 judges (who will vote, by a two-thirds majority, whether to recommend school integration to the City Council). One of them, the local hardware-store owner (John Gallagher Jr.), is a Vietnam veteran; so is the black manager of his store. That strikes a sacred chord with C.P., and it forces him to ask: If these men defended my country, who am I defending?
Watching “The Best of Enemies,” there’s a part of us that wants to put on the moral brakes, because we think: Is the film’s point that the head of the Klan is really a good guy? But actually, that’s not the film’s point. It’s that racism, disgusting as it is, truly is a mask for fear and ignorance. C.P. has grown up regarding black people as The Other. As he spends more and more time in a room, talking with them on equal footing, his ignorance starts to fall away, despite his best efforts to hold it in place. And he can’t escape seeing that his own Klan cronies are hypocrites. Rockwell doesn’t soft-pedal C.P.’s racism, but his fine, subtle performance separates the sinner from the sin. By the end, the film moves us with an elemental message: A Klansman purging himself of hate may seem unlikely (though in this case, it really happened), but some collective version of that is what this country now needs to go through. Either we destroy the hate or it destroys us.