The Best of Enemies, rated PG-13
The Best of Enemies is based on a true story about race relations and school integration in North Carolina. It is a well-acted film that includes a surprising amount of Christian content, but also includes some content issues. In his directorial debut, Robin Bissell, best known as a producer (Seabiscuit, The Hunger Games) also wrote the script, which was inspired by Osha Gray Davidson’s 1996 book The Best of Enemies: Race and Redemption in the New South.
This film is set in Durham, North Carolina in 1971. Durham is a city with much racism and segregation, seen clearly on the City Council, led by Carvie Oldham, played by Bruce McGill (Lincoln, Rizzoli & Isles). A fire damages the city’s black elementary school and the children are not permitted to attend the white school while theirs is being repaired, despite this being seventeen years after the Brown vs. Board of Education decision about the racial segregation of schools. The NAACP gets involved, resulting in a judge ordering a community forum, or charrette.
The city brings in Bill Riddick, a black man, played by Babou Ceesay, who is skilled at putting on charrettes. He puts together the 10-day charrette, called “Save Our Schools”, or SOS. The purpose of the charrette is to let key stakeholders in the community share their opinions on the issues, form resolutions and then vote on them.
Riddick decides to choose two people who share very differing opinions on the issue to co-chair the charrette. One of the co-chairs is Ann Atwater, also known as “Roughhouse Annie”, played by Oscar nominee Taraji P. Henson (The Curious Case of Benjamin Button). Atwater is a single black mother, and the leader of the activist group Operation Breakthrough. The other is C.P. Ellis, played by Oscar winner Sam Rockwell (Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, Vice). Ellis is a white man who owns a gas station that doesn’t sell to blacks, and also leads the city’s Ku Klux Klan chapter. Both Atwater and Ellis profess to be Christians, but they hold very different views of integration, and they don’t like each other at all. Each of the co-chairs will choose five additional people, comprised of an equal amount of blacks and whites, forming the senate. The film takes us through the 10-day charrette, during which Riddick creates situations in which black and white citizens have to interact with each other over meals, discussions, etc. We see both acts of kindness and of intimidation during this period. Eventually, the senate will need to vote on three resolutions. Eight votes, or two-thirds of the senate, will be needed to pass each resolution.
The film features strong acting performances by Rockwell and Henson, along with an excellent supporting cast, including Emmy nominee Anne Heche (Gracie’s Choice), as Ellis’ wife Mary, Wes Bentley (Yellowstone, American Beauty), as Ellis’ fellow Klansman Floyd Kelly, and the always good Nick Pearcy (Justified, Gosnell, The Shape of Water) as Garland Keith, who is on the side of segregation. The film’s sets, costume design and music do a good job of portraying the time period. I especially liked the lyrics of the song “Grandma’s Hands” by Bill Withers.
Themes in the film include segregation, racism, hatred, civility, listening to and loving your enemy, unity and faith. Content concerns include some violence, and adult language, including much of a racist nature, and a few abuses of God’s and Jesus’ names.
The Best of Enemies is a powerful, well-acted film, based on a true story. It does have some content concerns however. I especially liked it because listening and talking to people we disagree with is in stark contrast to our current culture of labeling others as haters and dismissing them.