Elitist Hollywood is unqualified to promote brotherhood, but The Best of Enemies comes close by reminding us of Hollywood’s egalitarian character-actor tradition. In The Best of Enemies, Taraji P. Henson and Sam Rockwell portray the real-life black activist Ann Atwater and white former Ku Klux Klansman C. P. Ellis, who both, in 1971, got past dissension and strife to help desegregate their local North Carolina public schools.
Atwater and Ellis came together from the extremes of their divided community, while Henson and Rockwell — not bloviating celebrities but character actors specializing in outsiders and oddballs — honor their subjects’ individual eccentricities.
The always-game Rockwell starts with Ellis’s working-class idiosyncrasy: “The most emotional moment of my life was being inducted into the Klan.” Ellis’s Klan presidency (he’s given the fanatical moniker “Exalted Cyclops”) reveals the desperation behind the culture of racism. Rockwell does not betray his character’s honest, slow self-realization, and writer-director Robin Bissell keeps Ellis’s turning-point speech free of platitudes. This isn’t a fantasy bigot like Rockwell’s Oscar-winning role in Three Billboards but is based on clear insight into envy and competition, not the fear and resentment favored by most histories of racism. Ellis’s complexity is palpable in Rockwell’s very canny Brandoesque Southern accent.
Henson scores similar complexity. After her Oscar-nominated neo-Mammy turn in Benjamin Button and the ratchet excess of TV’s Empire, Henson reclaims her craft. Outfitted in sloping, cantilever breasts, her face twisted into a fist as wound-up as her kinky wig, Henson impersonates the intractable side of “Rough-house Annie.” It’s too bad that Henson only gets the anger right — as when calling out Ellis’s cowardice. But could any Black Lives Matter–era character actress resist commercialized fashionable rage? Understanding Atwater’s religious-based perseverance — when she thrusts her Bible against Ellis’s rifle — requires an actress to show even greater daring.
The Best of Enemies breaks from Hollywood’s customary exploitation of America’s racial history. The 1971 setting is long after the Civil Rights Movement’s peak, so the late existence of Durham’s opposing organizations Operation Breakthrough, Black Solidarity Committee, White Citizens Council, and Ku Klux Klan testify to the long struggle toward social advancement.
After the political football the media has made of the 2017 Charlottesville melee, Hollywood isn’t prepared to deal with America’s matter-of-fact complications. But it’s enough that Bissell steers clear of the enmity that Spike Lee brought to BlacKkKlansman. Bissell’s good intentions come through in the space he gives Henson and Rockwell to make their biographical portraits archetypal.
Ellis’s turnabout is differently bold from Atwater’s determination. Through a series of public forums called Charrettes, Atwater and Ellis’s personal development is superficial but at least the movie doesn’t drag the actors through trendy cynicism. Bissell and his performers admirably sentimentalize a small but historic accord. (Reliable Bruce McGill, a modern Thomas Mitchell, pinpoints bureaucratic deceit while Anne Heche and Wes Bentley are too actorly “good” and “evil.”)
Recent Hollywood race histories reproach American ancestors for not playing by contemporary rules. This hypocrisy comes through in the shot of Ellis standing before the Klan banner “Our Race Is Our Nation” which shames the new, identity-based segregation now trending on college campuses. It is bolder than BlacKkKlansman, an immoral comedy praised for its ridicule of social unity and its dishonest approach to history, civics, and recent events.
Final note on civics and culture: Bissell’s soundtrack confuses both race and music history through questionable use of Roy Orbison’s “Blue Bayou,” Bill Withers’s “Grandma’s Hands,” David Bowie’s “Queen Bitch,” and Donovan’s “Hurdy Gurdy Man” — its most offensive use since David Fincher’s Zodiac. This cultural muddle (beloved songs scored to scenes of repugnant violence) belongs to Hollywood’s banal ironies about our complicated culture. The Best of Enemies’ soundtrack could be more authentic, but like the respect its character actors show to their subjects, it means well. That’s rare in the Spike Lee, Ava DuVernay, and Jordan Peele era.