Reading the synopsis of The Best of Enemies, or seeing its trailer, one could assume that it is a movie about a black woman who successfully fought for school desegregation in Durham, North Carolina. In fact, the film is - disappointingly but maybe not surprisingly - yet another civil rights film about the redemption of a white man who changes his mind and saves the day.
Inspired by a true story, The Best of Enemies recounts a 1971 community summit organized to discuss school integration after a fire in a local black elementary school leaves hundreds of students without a place to study. By design of its organizer, the summit is co-chaired by the civil rights activist Ann Atwater (Taraji P. Henson, from Hidden Figures, Empire) and C. P. Ellis, the local leader of the Ku Klux Klan, played by Sam Rockwell (Vice, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri).
Movies based on real events are attractive because they give us the opportunity to learn more not only about a specific historic event, but more importantly about people who made a difference in their community and maybe even in the world. They are also doomed to have a predictable ending. This is why the best ones focus on the characters, offering a window on who they were beyond that moment that defined their lives. By centering on the personal, they show our collective history in a way that is easier to relate to and to understand.
The Best of Enemies is not one of these movies. The film is entirely constructed to reach the scene in which the decision to desegregate or not the city’s school system will be revealed - as if the result of the negotiations and who would cast the deciding vote had not been obvious from the very beginning.
At some point, The Best of Enemies seems promising. It introduces C. P. Ellis’s wife, Mary, played by Anne Heche (Six Days Seven Nights, Volcano), who doesn’t disguise her disagreement with her husband’s white-supremacist beliefs. It also shows the couple struggling with a mentally impaired son who lives in an institution. This family life had the potential to create revealing conflicts that would lead to a better understanding of who Ellis was beyond the KKK leadership, and how his change of heart came to be. Yet, such possibilities are left unexplored by the movie, except for the most obvious connections.
These missed opportunities are only surpassed by the treatment given to Ann Atwater. It is not only that her story becomes secondary to Ellis’s arc. Despite some scenes in her home, the film barely shows anything beyond her activism, and even that is mostly narrowed down to the school desegregation demand.
The old interviews that close the movie, with the real Ann Atwater, C. P. Ellis, and other relevant characters in that story, are just enough to remind the audience of what the film could have been but failed to achieve.
- Lalu Farias