Crossing Enemy Lines

The Best of Enemies tells of an unlikely friendship between a civil rights activist and a Ku Klux Klan leader.

The Best of Enemies is based on true events that occurred in Durham, North Carolina, in the early 1970s. The film, which out last week, is about an unlikely friendship between a civil rights activist and a Ku Klux Klan leader.

Directed by Robin Bissell, the movie features a scowling Taraji P. Henson and the swaggering Sam Rockwell, who introduce the audience to a charette, a meeting in which all stakeholders in a particular problem gather to collectively decide on a solution. In this instance, they hold a summit to discuss the issue of school desegregation.

When a black elementary school is set on fire, displacing black students, the town is forced to have those black students share a white elementary school for the time being—opening white anxiety about and resistance to school integration.

With the need to arrive at a timely resolution, Durham brings in a black charette specialist, Bill Reddick (Babou Ceesay). His mandate is to set up a process by which they can integrate the schools without having a communal civil war. Rather than just letting a judge make a decision, ordinary people get to choose the policy instead.

Reddick zeroes in on the two most pivotal leaders in Durham’s racial divide, and nominates them to become co-leaders of the process. Atwater the activist is played by Henson, who ditched her ghetto fabulous Cookie Lyons persona from Empire and developed a “mama-don’t-take-no-bullshit” approach, which means getting up in people’s faces to get results. For the role, Henson transformed herself into a black political matron, complete with an Afro, billowing breasts, and fuller hips.

A more reluctant hero, however, is C. P. Ellis: husband, father, gas station owner—and the a honcho of the Klan. Some will accuse Rockwell of merely sliding over his Oscar-winning performance in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. But as C. P. Ellis, Rockwell is more focused and nuanced. He is not only the head of the pack, but also a father of three, with one child who has Down syndrome. Ellis is both respected and feared, but also aware that some of Durham’s leading white citizens and local politicians see him and Klan brethren as rough tools to merely be used for dirty work.

Interestingly, The Best of Enemies offers a slight glimpse into white supremacist identity formation. As voiced by Ellis, the Klan is a brotherhood that looks after the interests of the “white working man.” As a community, it gives some white people a perverse sense of meaning and purpose—they seek to keep the southern way of life intact. This film may inform viewers that today’s white nationalists and alt-right extremists trace their roots to klaverns led by Ellis.

Ellis’s only mission is to prevent his charette team of white stakeholders, especially the “liberals,” from changing the status quo by integrating the schools. Both crude and bureaucratic methods are used to keep left-leaning whites from agreeing to the change.

While the film centers on Atwater and Ellis, the film spends considerable more time looking at Ellis, whose wife Mary (Ann Heche) tolerates his Klan activities but is not quite enthusiastic about them. Mary herself raises eyebrows when she travels to the black side of town to thank Atwater, who pulled strings to get her son into a private room at a hospital.

One crucial aspect of the charette is to allow opponents a chance to socialize in the off-moments, like at lunch, building trust and seeing the other as individuals rather than antagonists.

But very little of Atwater’s off-hours life is shown throughout the film. Perhaps being on the “right side of history,” she apparently had to do less traveling to get there. The person who has to evolve over the course of the picture is Ellis, who changes his mind because of his interactions with Atwater and Trombley.

In the end, Ellis casts the pivotal vote to end Durham’s policy of school segregation. The film, however, would have been more dramatic if it had spent some time examining the social costs that Ellis paid afterword for taking that position. How does a man like Ellis go from winning a regional Klan award to becoming a social pariah? Instead, like most Hollywood films about race, it ends on a triumphant note, when scores of black residents drive to his gas station to make up for his sudden loss of white patronage.

What The Best of Enemies asks is, How do people who fundamentally disagree with one another have a conversation about their disagreements? Given that the film made less than $5 million on its opening weekend, it would seem that the vast viewing public doesn’t appear ready to tackle that question, much less learn about a charette.

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Norman Kelley

Norman Kelley is an author, journalist, and filmmaker living in Washington, D.C.