Some movies are hard to watch. That is the case in The Best of Enemies. The message is important. The movie subjects us to two hours of racists desperately trying to swim upstream against a tide equality. It’s enough to drive you to drink.
Set in Durham, NC in 1971, school integration hadn’t taken hold and if the local Klan and its leader, C.P. Ellis (Sam Rockwell), has anything to say about it, it won’t. On the other side is local activist Ann Atwater (Taraji P. Henson), who is fighting for the african american community on all fronts from housing to education. Once a fire ravages the elementary school for black students, Ann sees an opportunity for lasting change.
“Justice For All Just Ain’t Specific Enough” -Common
The movie serves up a history lesson, reminding us that Brown v. Board of Education and Little Rock served as starting points for school integration, not the ultimate goal. It shows us how police and politicians, now legally prohibited from open discrimination in most areas of life, subcontracted the job out to the KKK.
We are confronted with the N word frequently. We see the frightened look of their victims. There is anger on both sides of the controversy. The thing is, it’s nothing that we haven’t seen or heard before.
The movie is based on a true story, but it takes some liberties with how things actually played out.
We hear the N word, but it’s not said as often or with the anger that it was used back in the day. And that’s just one of the things that makes this movie just okay.
We see the intimidation, but mostly used to keep white people in line, while ignoring culture of fear that hung over black communities. The movie works to make us just uncomfortable enough without truly showing us how terrible things were at that time and place.
This story is important and relevant today, but by sanitizing the past, the present audience is cheated.
The community meetings shows people disagreeing but not getting out of hand, even outside. And the relationship between Ann and CP is shown as adversarial but she is never a target of his prejudice-fueled rage. The movie gives CP depth, and shows us that although he is a Klan leader he is also a man trying to take care of a family and make it month to month.
We have a degree of sympathy, but I wonder if we would be okay with that point of view if we didn’t already know that he would come around at the end of the film. It’s a real story yet the director makes it feel unreal. And that’s a shame.
The Best Part
Unquestionably this movie is carried by Taraji and Sam. They turn in the two best performances of the year so far.
Visually, Taraji is transformed into the 180 degree opposite of her iconic Empire character, Cookie Lyon. But her spirit is just as strong. She brings the perfect amount of righteous anger and tough love. She owns every frame she is on-screen. It’s a dominating performance that will resonate with you after you leave the theater.
Sam nails it as well. He plays CP with a mixture of assured racist and vulnerable human. You believe that CP believes the vile beliefs he’s spewing. Even as he begins so see error of his ways, it is a journey not a moment. And Sam brings the character along perfectly.
Both performances are worthy of nominations, and if the rest of the film weren’t such a white washed mess, this would be released in the fall and they would be picking out red carpet gear.
The Critic’s Cocktail Recommendation
Ann always had a pitcher of sweet tea in her fridge. So I’ll make myself a sweet tea, spiked with a double shot of Svedka Strawberry Lemonade. It’s a sweet and tart drink that leaves all kinds of different reactions on your palate, much like this movie.