“The Best of Enemies” (MA) **** and a half
SHOULD a movie telling the story of real events in the history of American racial bigotry be entertaining?
I sat alone in a state of tension watching writer/director Robin Bissell’s 133-minute film, despite knowing well-enough how its outcome would turn out. I could find little information about the 1999 filming of Osha Gray Davidson’s book “’The Best of Enemies: Race and Redemption in the New South”, for which Davidson herself wrote the screenplay. But last October, the University of North Carolina Press posted a blog in which she declared her satisfaction with Bissell’s treatment of it.
Does a feature film fictionalising what must surely be a very serious analysis of a serious waypoint in American race relations have relevance to an Australian audience? The short answer is, “yes”. From beginning to end, combining conflict and the associated tensions soberly and intelligently, without hubris or hysteria, it tells a story worth telling. The characters, likeable or otherwise, are credible. The physical environment is restrained. The performances are admirable.
Oscar-winning (“Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” – 2018) and Oscar-nominated (“Vice” – 2019) Sam Rockwell is, put simply, compelling as C. P. Ellis, once Exalted Cyclops of the KKK group in Durham, North Carolina. As civil rights agitator Ann Atwater, multi-award winner Taraji P Henson delivers a powerhouse portrayal. Gilbert Glenn Brown plays Howard Clement, the NAACP official who came to Durham to organise the public discussion that became necessary when Ellis and the local government figures refused a demand from Atwater to allow black students from a high school destroyed by fire to attend a hitherto all-white high school.
Called a charette, the discussion took a fortnight to come to a decision, democracy in its purest form. Bissell’s staging of it shows political conflict as breathtaking muted drama. The narrative moves from hither to yon in the community and in the homes of participants. There’s an oblique reference to the Lysistrata method for resolving political issues. There’s a muted observation of the pervasive gun culture that found a zenith in the KKK.
All in all, “The Best Of Enemies” does just about everything that a message movie should without losing sight of that other element that has nourished movies ever since they began – being entertaining. And there’s not a super hero or a bunch of invaders from outer space in sight!