Written by: Patrick Howard
The Best of Enemies (Robin Bissell, 2019) 2 out of 4 stars.
In today’s heated and hate-injected racial climate, one can’t deny the timeliness of the release of Robin Bissell’s The Best of Enemies, set in 1971 Durham, North Carolina. Taraji P. Henson and Sam Rockwell portray the bigger-than-life personas of civil-rights activist Ann Atwater and president of the Durham chapter of the Ku Klux Klan (KKK), C.P. Ellis. The strain between the black and white communities of Durham is already at the tipping point, but when a fire accidentally burns down half of a school for black students, Ann Atwater tosses the controversial idea of integrated schools on the table.
Robin Bissell understands he is working with two of the most lauded actors of their generation and never once neuters Henson and Rockwell’s abilities to effortlessly bring nuance to Ms. Atwater and Mr. Ellis. Contrary to what you’ve seen from the film’s trailers, Ann Atwater is not the protagonist of this story. True, she has a sizeable amount of screen time, but C.P. Ellis has the defining character arc.
Among the passable direction and overly familiar depiction of hate crimes and civil injustices, C.P. Ellis’ reawakening from terrorizing bigot to a more tolerant member of a biracial community is the film’s biggest selling point. Keep in mind: this reawakening occurs in the span of a week—just beating the amount of time it takes for two Disney leads to fall in love with each other. It’s a bittersweet choice, nonetheless.
Bissell’s intentions are good and noble, but he never challenges himself to elevate the material past a safe and marketable product for general audiences. The attitude towards the scenes of racial violence at the hands of KKK members is that of obligation instead of a defying artistic voice. We know we are going to see the KKK do unspeakable things to the black citizens of Durham, but it’s never depicted with an original point other than that these are horrendous acts against humanity.