I’m not sure how long it took for me to wonder, “Where have I seen this before?” Then it occurred to me – it was the recently viewed movie BlacKkKlansman. Here we have another story based on true events about racism in America that took place several decades ago. Both films end with video clips of the actual people represented in the film. And that’s the point at which you sit back in your seat and realize that people in real life can be actually genuinely awful – and sometimes capable of great personal growth. If by now we don’t realize that we are tribal creatures, fearful of what we don’t understand, and hateful toward what we fear, then this movie is evidence that there can be hope in the least likely of times and places.
It seems like every time we go to the theater lately there are one or more films starring Sam Rockwell and/or Taraji P. Henson. They both have that familiar yet malleable presence on screen that augments their versatility and popularity.
Rockwell is coming off of his recent Oscar for Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri. He’s been in six films in the last two years, plus shorts, TV appearances and lots of voice work. He’s carved out a personal niche as a southern badass, or just a plain lunatic as in his memorable and utterly disturbing Green Mile role.
So it’s not surprising that in The Best of Enemies, Rockwell plays the well known president of a Durham North Carolina KKK chapter in 1971. Yes, that’s right, the Klan was out in the open in a way that’s hard to imagine, until recently events brought them to the surface once more. I mean, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 made all that go away, right? Not even close.
My one problem with Rockwell’s portrayal of the Klan’s Exaltant Cyclops C.P. Ellis was his overly affected John Wayne-like swagger that also reminded me of Johnny Depp’s imitation of Keith Richards as Captain Jack Sparrow in Pirates of the Caribbean. Instead of “Circle the wagons, Pilgrim” or “Avas ye mateys, yo ho” he cocks his head to the side, saunters across the screen and spews any number of “nigger” this or thats until we realize just how racist a character we’re watching.
Taraji P. Henson, as Ann Atwater, the Durham African American community’s voice has been no less busy during the past two years. She’s starred in four films, shorts, has also done voice work, and was front and center in the popular TV series Empire. (see my review of What Men Want, posted previously.”
For The Best of Enemies, Taraji dons a fat suit and a strong southern accent as she is reluctantly teamed with Rockwell as leaders in a conflict resolution protocol led by an outside consultant. The “charette” as it is called, is facilitated by Babou Ceesay as Bill Ridick, with the goal of involving numerous participants from each side of a debate over school integration.
It’s hard to fault the scriptwriters when a film documents actual people and events. This story builds to a predictable and inevitable vote that results in Ellis casting a vote for integration to an incredulous audience of townspeople. It was an unbelievable act of courage that results in a gas pump at Ellis’s service station being set ablaze, and a period of harassment and threats. But he lived to tell the story and be interviewed on film, alongside his unlikely new friend, Ann Atwater.
If you like true tales of enlightenment and redemption, you’ll find this film worth watching as a history lesson and for its educational value. It is competently filmed and acted, and our audience applauded when the final credits began to roll.
The Best of Enemies (2019) runs 2 hours, 13 minutes and is rated PG-13.
Should I see this movie?