"Best of Enemies" is a great movie and you should go see it. It's getting mediocre reviews, and that's disgusting. So many of us yearn for thoughtful, substantive, adult films. "Best of Enemies" is just that, and critics are attacking it because it isn't radical enough for them. Defy these losers. Go see "Best of Enemies."
It's 1971 in Durham, North Carolina. C. P. (Claiborne Paul) Ellis (Sam Rockwell) is the Exalted Cyclops of the local KKK. Ann Atwater (Taraji P. Henson) is a black activist trying to get decent housing for black people. A black school burns and blacks petition to attend the local, white school. Black activist Bill Riddick (Babou Ceesay) comes to town to organize a charrette. No, I'd never heard of a charrette, either. It's a French thing. People with opposing viewpoints are organized into discussion groups with a strictly imposed deadline. They must vote in a supermajority to approve any proposal.
C. P. Ellis' Klan is shown violently menacing white women. This is interesting because one justification offered for the Klan's existence was its purported protection of white women from black men. Ellis and his crew shoot up a house inhabited by a woman with a black boyfriend. In another scene, Klan members threaten a white female charrette participant to make sure that she won't vote for blacks to enter the white school.
Ellis' change is subtle and slow. There are no crashing music epiphany scenes. The movie is grounded in gritty day-to-day interactions, like Riddick compelling Atwater and Ellis to eat a school cafeteria meal together.
The entire cast is excellent. The production values are high. Clothes, cars, the songs on the soundtrack, evoke 1971 in the South. One drawback. Making a charrette dynamic drama is a challenge, one the director doesn't quite rise to. Some exposition scenes do drag. "1776" made the writing of the Declaration of Independence very dramatic, and "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington" and "Twelve Angry Men" made a filibuster and jury deliberations dramatic. I wish director Robin Bissell had taken a cue from these films.
The African Americans in the film are all saintly; most of the whites are sweat-stained, racist wretches or too cowardly to live up to their anti-segregation beliefs. It's patronizing to depict African Americans as flawless. We know that that era included hate and violence on all sides, including white-on-white (Viola Liuzzo and Jim Zwerg) and black-on-black (The Black Panthers and Malcolm X).
Further, the film fudges Ellis' Road-to-Damascus moment. "Best of Enemies" depicts Atwater showing small kindnesses to Ellis. The cinematic Ellis concludes that blacks are not inferior. In fact, though, Ellis' own memoir, he talks about growing up poor and being ashamed of being poor. He worked hard and could not get ahead. He was bitter and resentful and looking for someone to blame. The Klan encouraged him to blame blacks, not rich whites. As a Klansman, Ellis rubbed shoulders with wealthier whites. Outside of Klan meetings, though, those rich whites would cross the street to avoid him. Ellis concluded that desegregation would ultimately be best for poor and working class whites. None of Ellis' class struggle makes it into the movie. Hollywood has a hard time talking about poor whites.
There is a very handsome, very scary Klansman in a small part. I didn't remember seeing that actor in anything before "Best of Enemies." I made a mental note to google him. Darned if it isn't Wes Bentley, who made such a splash in 1999's "American Beauty." After that success, Bentley became a heroin addict. He's back to acting now. We wish him all the best. He has the star power to fill the screen. I found his Klansman genuinely scary.