When I read the brief summary of “Best of Enemies,” on Twitter, I thought the friendship between a Ku Klux Klan chapter president and a black rights activist sounded too unrealistic, despite it being a true story. I thought it would be naïve of me to believe a man dedicated to white supremacy and a black woman fighting against oppression could buddy up and save Durham, NC from segregation.
And while there was definitely no hand-holding or playdates between the two, I couldn’t help but double check the validity of the true story. What true event involving the KKK ever has a happy ending? The story was remarkable, almost unbelievable, and the film was just the same. The way the characters were portrayed and the way that the ‘70s decade wasn’t overplayed with groovy disco or flashy clothing is what made the movie realistic.
In 1971, a charatte (a meeting which works to resolve conflicts and map solutions) is formed in the southern city of Durham, NC after an elementary school for black students burns down. The town turns to integrated schools, but — you guessed it — not everyone is up for it. To represent all sides of the town effectively, C.P. Ellis, president of Durham’s KKK chapter, and Ann Atwater, President of Operation Breakthrough, are chosen as co-chairs in the charatte.
This story takes place late enough in the civil rights era that I wasn’t seeing bodies hanging from trees or lynchings being performed. I wasn’t crying at the horrific happenings that occurred in the early civil rights movements. This movie was easy to stomach for those who struggle to watch the graphic truths of the past, yet the unnerving combination of charming music set to portending scenes of Klansmen wielding shotguns always had me preparing myself for the worst.
Two scenes would reach a point where I was sure they’d end horribly, but I was rewarded with an outcome not nearly as bad as I imagined — no blood, no murder. If this sounds too vague, it’s because I really do advise anyone reading this to go see the movie — I’m avoiding all the spoilers I can. But for the most part, this movie wasn’t about scaring the audience, it was about educating it. “Best of Enemies” is a well-paced telling of a true event, portrayed by two incredible actors.
Taraji P. Henson, who also has been in “What Men Want” and “Hidden Figures,” starred as Ann Atwater, a passionate, spirited black woman and activist for her southern city. I had last seen her in “What Men Want” as a spunky and vivacious businesswoman, but Henson was able to completely sink into her pantyhose, cotton dress and waddling gait, taking on the animated, southern persona of the true Ann Atwater. While the ending credits revealed that the actress and the activist didn’t look much alike facially, the costume department and Henson’s acting put on an intense performance.
Sam Rockwell, who played C.P. Ellis, portrayed the man who began as a white supremacist and ended as someone who gave up his KKK presidency to advocate for integration. His acting was genuine and not overplayed, like this character type so often is (i.e. ridiculous southern accent, clad head to toe in confederate flags and spits on every sidewalk tread upon). When he turned away black customers from his gas station, I could hear the preconditioned prejudice in his voice. I could sense his fear of the KKK’s retribution after he left the organization. I was able to pick up on all the subtle mannerisms of an uneducated, small town father.
In the ending credits, during real footage of the two activists, the audience learned C.P. Ellis and Ann Atwater traveled the country for 30 more years, continuing to advocate. So while C.P. Ellis might be the most dynamic character in all of history, the movie portrays the rare cases of human redemption in a heartwarming, but realistic light.