It’s no longer a surprise that every year we get at least one drama about race relations that carries the “based on a true story” tag with it. Last year saw two of them reach the Oscar stage being the unflinching BlacKkKlansman and the light-hearted Green Book. The latter film pulled the big upset of the evening by taking home the Best Picture trophy. In The Best of Enemies, they try to have the best of both worlds by showing an ugly side of racism in the South while maintaining an accessible PG-13 rating. This balancing act, unfortunately, isn’t always successful in the movie’s case.
The movie follows two polar opposites in the early 70s coming together to make a big decision about school integration. On one side is Ann Atwater, an outspoken civil rights activist in Durham, North Carolina. On the other side is C.P. Ellis, the leader of the local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan. We’re introduced to these two people doing their respective work. He’s running a Klan meeting while she’s at town hall making a statement about living situations for African-Americans.
An electric fire at an all black school breaks out and leaves the kids almost a full year behind in class. It shows holes broken in the windows where the fire starts, but it’s never confirmed that the Klan is behind it. This action forces Ann Atwater to fight for not only her kids, but all the kids who attended that school. The committee is composed of an even number of Caucasian citizens and African-American citizens, with Atwater representing the latter and Ellis representing the former.
There aren’t many surprises in The Best of Enemies. The movie was written and directed by Robin Bissell, who was an executive producer on films like the first Hunger Games movie, Free State of Jones, and the Oscar nominated Seabiscuit. But what surprised me was, even for the genre, it lacked nuance. When Atwater is at a city council meeting, one of the councilmen turns his chair around whenever she comes up to speak. While these actions may be common in these types of movies, it felt very forced in the script. Whenever a moment comes that could bring more depth to the character, it’s replaced by montages set to music of the time. Local members of the Klan use intimidation tactics towards a local woman to make her vote against integration, among them are grabbing her by her genitals.
What makes the movie watchable are the two leads. Taraji P. Henson plays Atwater, sporting what I could only assume are prosthetics borrowed from Tyler Perry’s Madea ensemble. She never waivers throughout the movie, and remains determined that she will be the one to make change happen in the town of Durham, along with other African-American citizens.
Sam Rockwell, meanwhile, plays C.P. Ellis in a role that’s fairly similar to his Oscar-winning performance in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. Here, however, he benefits from a more natural character arc. We’re introduced to his family, a wife and three kids. Then we’re introduced to his other son who is blind and mute, residing in a hospital. The few scenes of him in the hospital with his son bring out a lot of development to his character, showing why he acts the way he acts. Even his wife isn’t so sure about Ellis’ racist ways, saying that turning down African-Americans at a gas station isn’t good for business.
In my mind (feel free to disagree with me on this one), there are two ways to make a drama about race, and they don’t exactly have to follow the model of last year’s race dramas mentioned earlier in this review. But The Best of Enemies tries to push the envelope, trying to transcend its comparisons to Green Book by showing scenes that would be more suited for Spike Lee’s movie. It’s this indecision that causes it to fall flat most of the time, but it gets somewhat salvaged by the performances of Henson and Rockwell. I didn’t like this as much as I did Green Book, but I don’t blame the actors at all. I blame the script for not trying hard enough.