Robin Bissell’s The Best of Enemies almost has a similar title as that more superb documentary. The one about Gore Vidal and William Buckley, Jr, those two being bitter political rivals. We can use the same words to describe the protagonists in this year’s movie. Instead of two old white men on the opposite side of the political spectrum, these rivals are opposites because of gender, race, and religion. Bissell adapts Osha Gray Davidson’s nonfiction book about two different rivals. Both are real life Southerners, from Durham, North Carolina to be exact. One is black civil rights activist Ann Atwater (Taraji P. Henson) and the other is C. P. Ellis (Sam Rockwell). During the movie’s opening scenes in 1971, C.P. is President of the local branch of the Klan, heckling Ann during city council meetings.
The film looks like it treats both characters as equals but it really doesn’t. The real Atwater has a closer resemblance to either Queen Latifah or Octavia Spencer. Nonetheless, Henson exists in this movie as a bankable star, making its audience expect interesting possibilities in portraying Ann. And it works on some of those possibilities. Already having a cause on her itinerary, she gets another one when a black elementary school partially burns down. These students can keep having their education in smoke-filled surroundings or take classes in the white school. Ann prefers the latter option while C.P. prefers the former.
But after that, we get more of C.P. The film’s approach is understandable – if at all – in that the only way to depict monsters on screen is to humanize them. Despite being the Klan President, he is an every man who has to take of his family, especially a special needs son who he ships off to a hospital and occasionally visits. He also has a wife, Mary, (Anne Heche) who playfully mocks what he probably says during Klan meetings, which, why are they still together if she hates him so much?
C.P. also runs a gas station and refuses to serve black people, which Mary nags him about. The movie’s predictability is obvious but it bears repeating. This is a film about C.P. eventually having to change his mind about shocking ideas. One, of having his children sit with black children and two, of having to take money from black people. Ann is, during the beginning, too abrasive to be the one to convince C.P. do to both but of course it’s a burden she takes more enthusiastically as the film progresses. Why is it always the burden of people of color to make white people nicer to them?
People can change, enemies can be friends, and these characters have real life bases. However, the film could have gone further in telling the true story. When audiences have a chance to look at what happens in his life after his involvement in the school segregation debate, some of those events and facts are interesting. Instead what it does is only involve Ann in the plot while humanizing C.P.’s terrible past. It shows so many supporting characters in C.P.’s life while only expressing Ann’s back story through her facial expressions. That might just be a testament to Henson’s acting, to her lack of vanity and the way she disregards respectability politics. But the film could have given her more to do.