Hollywood keeps solving racism with “the Best of Enemies,” a brilliant and superficial gem based on real events that seem to have been invented in the hands of feel-good filmmaker Robin Bissell.
We are in 1971 in Durham, North Carolina, where the schools are still segregated and C. P. Ellis (Sam Rockwell), head of the local KKK franchise, has the ear of several members of the city council. A fire in the black elementary school (no arson!) seems to force the question of integration — where can these children go now, except for the white school? – but racists don’t have it.
Enter Ann Atwater (Taraji P. Henson in matronly padding), a tireless community organizer and an exhausted single mom. She sees no reason to compromise on all this, but is convinced to participate in a 10-day discussion in which the members of the community on both sides of the issue — black and racist-discuss the problem and look for solutions. She represents the black citizens; C. P. Ellis agrees to represent the whites. The presenter, a black man named Bill Riddick (Babou Ceesay), wants to appease racists, a bad but very popular strategy throughout history.
As you would expect, Ann and C. P., who have known each other for years, but obviously have not traveled in the same circles, approach each other in the course of the cart. (I have to note that it’s C.P. who needs to change her attitude, not Ann. She practically doesn’t bother to be black anymore when C.P. is around. Ann must find ways to sign up C.P. and his family (including his wife, played by Anne Heche), without being shy of what is right, while the hate manifesto, and without a word from C.P. Black, is gradually diminishing. Meanwhile, the racist machine that is C.P. is part of the works aimed at thwarting the cart process. C.P. Klan lieutenant (Wes Bentley), a corrupt city councilman (Bruce McGill) and two non-racist whites (John Gallagher Jr. and Caitlin Mehner) step into the story and give it more nooks and crannies.
Do you know who doesn’t have much in the story? Ann Atwater, half of the story is. As much as I like the subgenre of movies where Taraji P. Henson puts a boot in the man’s ass, it’s frustrating when you just give him a couple of storefront scenes to do that. “The Best of Enemies” focuses mostly on the white guy, telling us little about Ann’s own life and reducing her to a colorful, flabby stereotype of an indomitable black woman.
And then there’s the finale. It doesn’t break anything to say that C.P. changed his mind; what else would the film be talking about? The problem is: I don’t buy it. I’m not saying it didn’t happen. Perhaps everything went exactly as it is presented here. I say that the denouement in the film resembles an artificial fantasy, not the actions of a real person. Rockwell is doing the best he can (which is a lot), but the scenario is not up to the difficult task of showing someone changing.
They show pictures of the real C.P. Ellis and Ann Atwater on the credits, I suppose, in matter we didn’t think they were real people. Hearing their voices made me think that I would rather watch a documentary about the two of them. It turns out that there is one: “an unlikely friendship”, which lasts less than half an hour and is broadcast on PBS. “The best enemy ” is not bad, just a mediocrity and a lost opportunity. If the story is a guide, it wins the best picture.