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"THE BEST OF ENEMIES"
(2019) (Sam Rockwell, Taraji P. Henson) (PG-13)


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QUICK TAKE:
Drama: An early 1970s African-American activist and a white Klan member clash as they're forced to work together to come up with a resolution to the matter of integrating a school in their Durham neighborhood.
PLOT:
It's the early 1970s and Ann Atwater (TARAJI P. HENSON) is an African-American activist and single mom who fights for the rights of other blacks who've been affected by direct or indirect racism in their Durham neighborhood. When her daughter's all-black school is damaged by a fire and closed, there's a demand that the nearby all-white school allow the black students to attend.

That doesn't sit well with various white folks in power, including Councilman Carvie Oldham (BRUCE McGILL) and Garland Keith (NICK SEARCY) of the White Citizens Council, or members of the local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan, including gas station owner C.P. Ellis (SAM ROCKWELL) and his right-hand man, Floyd Kelly (WES BENTLEY).

To try to resolve the matter peacefully, community activist Bill Riddick (BABOU CEESAY) arrives in town with the suggestion that a 10-day charrette be created to allow those on opposite sides of the issue to hammer out their differences and come to a final vote. Bill suggests that Ann and C.P. be chairs of their respective sides to be comprised of a council pulled from the community. While C.P. initially doesn't want to do that, he's talked into it by the powers that be so that some liberal white person isn't put in charge of their side.

White hardware store owner Lee Trombley (JOHN GALLAGHER, JR.) is one of those council members, but his practice of hiring African-Americans as his employees doesn't sit well with other whites, such as Wiley Yates (NICHOLAS LOGAN) who eventually goes so far as to threaten physical violence against another white member, Maddy Mays (CAITLIN MEHNER), if she doesn't vote their way.

At the same time, C.P. and his wife, Mary (ANNE HECHE), must contend with having one of their children institutionalized due to having Down Syndrome, and once Ann learns about that and sees how C.P. behaves regarding that, she softens her stance on him a bit. All of which causes him to do the same toward her, but that puts him at odds with most of the rest of the white folks in town, including his fellow Klan members who begin to eye his behavior with suspicion.

OUR TAKE: 5.5 out of 10
A recent story on CBS Sunday Morning focused on a former U.S. Marine who had such hatred of Islam and after seeing two women in burqas in his home of Muncie, Indiana that he plotted to blow up the local Islamic Center. Instead, and in the category of fact is stranger than fiction, he opted to visit the place, was given a Koran to read, and in two short months became a Muslim. And in another unlikely twist, he's now president of the center he intended to destroy.

All of which is a lesson for all to remember in that anyone, despite whatever their past and present mindset, attitudes and behavior otherwise indicate, can do a one-eighty. Such was the case decades before that with C.P. Ellis, a one-time American segregationist and Klan leader who became a civil rights activist and trade union organizer, something no one who knew him would have ever believed possible. Yet it occurred, and his story and that of the African-American woman who helped make that transformation possible is at the heart of "The Best of Enemies."

Okay, so you now sort of know how things likely play out in the film but -- spoiler alert -- there's never a question at any moment that something like that is going to happen over the course of the film's 133-some minute runtime.

After all, do you really think the film from a major Hollywood studio would allow the white racist and his pals to be victorious over the black community who simply wanted an all-white school desegregated so that their kids -- who had been attending an all-black school in their Durham, North Carolina neighborhood before a fire closed it -- could continue their education there?

But as they like to say it's the journey and not the destination, and since you pretty much know how things are ultimately going to play out, it's whether the storytelling is engaging and convincing enough to take you along for the ride there.

To any not familiar with the true story of C.P. Ellis and Ann Atwater, all of that might make it sound like the story takes place sometime before the U.S. Supreme Court's Brown v. Board of Education ruling in 1954. No, and as was the case in much of the South for a few decades after that, schools remained segregated and the KKK found itself empowered to counter and intimidate black protestors.

Our story -- adapted from Osha Gray Davidson's book "The Best of Enemies: Race and Redemption in the New South" -- begins in 1971 when Ann (Taraji P. Henson) is viewed by the white power establishment -- represented by the likes of councilman Carvie Oldham (Bruce McGill) and White Citizens Council member Garland Keith (Nick Searcy) -- as a troublemaker. All of which has helped C.P. organize a KKK youth group to increase their numbers for another generation, leading to him being named the Exalted Cyclops of the local chapter.

With some officials being worried about violence, a community activist, Bill Riddick (Babou Ceesay), is brought in to form a charrette to resolve the school issue. And to no one's surprise among those watching this drama unfold, C.P. and Ann are tasked with being co-chairs of that ten-day meeting and must lead their respective groups in trying to come to a resolution that will ultimately come down to a final yea or nay vote. Similarly, few if any viewers will be surprised that the two co-chairs don't see eye-to-eye, let alone get along. But just like politics make for strange bedfellows, apparently charrettes can soothe the savage beast of racism and other racial differences.

Helping with such matters is that C.P. has a softer side in relation to his son who's institutionalized due to him having Down Syndrome, something not talked about outside his marriage to Mary (Anne Heche). But when Ann learns of this family matter, it softens her view of him just a tiny bit, but enough to get that "hey we can get along" snowball rolling down the hill rather than trying to be pushed up it.

Henson and Rockwell are fine in their roles (even if her character gets shortchanged a bit in comparison), but it's sort of strange that he chose this part after playing a somewhat similar character in "Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri." Yes, I realize the differences, but considering the two characters could be related -- perhaps C.P. is Dixon's uncle -- and the similar character development arc that both go through, it sort of seems like an odd choice, and one that's a bit distracting at times (as it makes you think of the better picture).

As are the many montages writer/director Robin Bissell deploys to convey progress at certain points in the film (and presumably to help keep the already-too-long running time somewhat in check), while the use of Linda Ronstadt's "Blue Bayou" during an early, slow-motion presented, Klan gunfire riddling sequence of a white woman's house (for dating a black guy) seems downright out of place -- considering the rest of the film isn't going for that sort of Tarantino vibe.

That said, enough of the film works -- even when it's as predictable as they come -- that you'll likely be okay going along for the ride down this familiar path where the destination is in plain sight from the get-go. Make sure to stick around at the end that features footage of the real-life C.P. and Ann and additional notes about their lives that continued after the conclusion of this particular chapter. "The Best of Enemies" rates as a 5.5 out of 10.




Reviewed March 21, 2019 / Posted April 5, 2019


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