Thursday, April 4, 2019

An unlikely alliance in Durham, N.C.

The Best of Enemies is a stranger-than-fiction story buoyed by a strong cast.

The essential part of the story told in the new movie The Best of Enemies is true. In 1971, during a fierce argument over the integration of the public schools in Durham, N.C., a black woman and a Ku Klux Klan leader co-chaired a charrette at which the future of the city's schools was to be decided. Rather than impose a solution, the idea was to allow Durham's residents to determine how to proceed.

A Raleigh-based community organizer named Bill Riddick came to Durham to run the two-week charrette, a big meeting at which issues were hashed out in hopes of presenting several resolutions that would be voted on by a committee of Durham's citizens, half white and half black.

The story of an uneasy relationship between a Ku Klux Klan leader and a no-nonsense black activist is one of those stranger-than-fiction tales that can't help but intrigue. And you needn't be a genius to know that the resolution will involve a major transformation on someone's part.

The movie owes much of its success to casting. Taraji P. Henson plays Anne Atwater, a woman who has spent much of her life fighting with Durham's white power structure and upholding the rights of the city's black residents. Sporting outfits that add considerable enlargement to her body, Henson virtually disappears into the role of a woman whose determination and sense of righteousness speak of a drive that will not accept defeat.

Sam Rockwell, who already played a racist in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, portrays another in Best of Enemies. Rockwell's CP Ellis faces a challenge when he's asked to rub elbows with members of the city's black community.

The white power elite -- represented in part by a smooth-talking councilman (Bruce McGill) -- wants a reliably racist person to uphold support for segregated schools and to serve as its man on the inside of the charrette.

Rockwell's performance reflects the inner struggle of a man whose sense of belonging has been challenged. CP can seem a bit goofy, but we know there's something percolating inside this gas station owner. CP unexpectedly finds himself immersed in a major debate.

When CP tries to persuade the liberal owner of a local hardware store (John Gallagher Jr.) to vote with the white majority, a saddened CP is taken aback. CP learns that this man who employees blacks served in Vietnam. He fought for his country. CP didn't. For once, CP has no comeback. His world has begun to fall apart.

The supporting cast helps. Anne Heche plays CP's wife and Babou Ceesay portrays Riddick, a man with the unenviable job of trying to get the blacks and whites of Durham to listen to one another.

To me, the Klan venom in Best of Enemies seemed a trifle toned down, but Wes Bentley does a convincing job as a Klansman who has no interest in examining his values.

Robin Bissell, who has spent most of his career producing movies, makes his directorial debut. He smartly relies on his actors to carry the day.

Look, no one likely will mistake Best of Enemies for a great movie and there's always a danger that a movie such as Best of Enemies encourages people to elevate the anecdotal to something more than it is. I wish Bissell had found ways to show more of the discussions that took place at the charrette, and the movie sometimes loses dramatic steam.

Still, you could do worse than Best of Enemies and Hollywood has, many would argue that the Oscar-winning Green Book is one such example.

A small aside: Three recent major movies -- The Best of Enemies, Green Book, and BlacKkKlansman -- have been set in the 1960s and 1970s. Whatever you think of these movies, another truth must be acknowledged: It's past time for Hollywood to catch up and give stories about racism some present-tense urgency.

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