Rob Reviews "The Best Of Enemies"
With the landmark Supreme Court case of Brown v. The Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas in 1954, it was found that school segregation was unconstitutional, but not everyone was on board much less compliant. Given that longtime producer and first-time director Robin Bissell’s film “The Best of Enemies” deals with this subject in 1971 Durham, North Carolina, the snail’s pace that some of our country worked at to be in sync with the decision is sometimes mind-boggling.
In this film based on true events, Sam Rockwell plays C.P. Ellis, the Grand Cyclops of the local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan, who finds himself at constant odds with local African-American community activist Ann Atwater (Taraji P. Henson). With the area still severely segregated, the local African-American elementary school catches fire, forcing its students to go to a more long-term, split schedule after the local city council votes down mixing them into the white elementary school. With those in power, including council chair Carvie Oldham (Bruce McGill), supporting the white side of the issue, the case ends up escalating to a higher court where political expert Bill Riddick (Babou Ceesay) is brought in to perform a charrette, which is basically a town senate/consensus to decide if integration will happen on multiple levels or not. He also makes Atwater and Ellis the co-chairs of the event in order to make sure all sides of the argument will be represented. The following days and weeks will test both of them both professionally and personally, forcing them to question their moral codes, beliefs, and assumptions about each other and their lifestyles.
At two hours and thirteen minutes, I was a bit apprehensive going into this screening, but what I found was a very engaging story executed well on each and every facet of the production. Rockwell is easily one of my favorite actors of the last decade, and his performance here does not disappoint. He is able to convey the evolution of Ellis’ character in a way that few truly can, and his work opposite of Henson conveys both the tensions and triumphs between them that demands to be noticed. Henson’s Atwater balances her anger and passion in a way that felt over the top as the film began, but really hits its stride quickly into what has become one of my favorite roles I have seen her in so far.
I really also enjoyed that this script looks at more than just the subject of segregation, but also looks at the personal lives of its two main characters. By showing their family lives, their commitment to their belief systems are even more strongly reinforced (including one that starts the process that will connect them for the rest of their lives). Ceesay is also dead-on as the buffer to work between them so they can work together to do the right thing, but he also knows when to step back and let the two leads do what they do. McGill along with a cast that includes Wes Bentley, John Gallagher, Jr., and Anne Heche round out this story incredibly well, keeping me focused for its entire run.
I truly cannot say enough good things about “The Best of Enemies,” and I truly believe this is a film that groups of people need to go and see together. Perhaps with a bit of editing from a language standpoint, this is a film that can be shown to schools to open the discussion about not just integration but also race (and human) relations in order to keep us talking about these issues so that we may come to a day where we can all truly coexist in the way that we should.