The Best of Enemies

2019-07-28 10:44
 
Taraji P. Henson in 'The Best of Enemies.'

WHAT IT'S ABOUT:

The year is 1971 and despite the major strides made by the Civil Rights movement in America, small towns like Durham, North Carolina is as racially splintered as ever. When Durham’s blacks-only school burns down, black activist, Ann Atwater, and president of the local chapter of the Klu Klux Klan, C.P. Ellis, are brought together by an outside mediator to chair a committee that will determine whether school integration should finally be adopted into law in the town. Based on a true story.

WHAT WE THOUGHT:

Based on the plot synopsis and the film’s title, it doesn’t take a genius or even an experienced movie watcher to be able to guess what happens in the Best of Enemies. It is a film that is as unafraid to warmly embrace cliché as it is utterly uninterested in surprising its audience. And, if you’re looking for any new insights into race relations in America, boy, have you come to the wrong place. There is, however, one unpredictable aspect to the film and it’s a doozy.

While most films that are as dreary, tepid and uninspiring as the Best of Enemies is in its first act only get worse as they go along, writer/director Robin Bissell (adapting the book by Osha Gray Davidson) somehow finds his groove as the film progresses, building towards a finale that is massively predictable, yes, but is also genuinely uplifting and moving in a way that so few “feel good” movies are. Most interestingly, though, the more the film leans into the sappy feel-goodness off it all, the better it is.

The opening act is a rather unpromising, dreary affair with both of our lead characters coming across as little more than fairly irritating stereotypes (Taraji P. Henson’s Ann Atwater is a sassy, big-mouthed black woman; Sam Rockwell’s C.P. Ellis is just your run-of-the-mill redneck racist) and after about five minutes I had settled into accepting the grim reality that the next two-plus hours were going to be something of a challenge. Imagine my shock and delight when after about forty-five minutes, I realised I was actually kind of involved in the film despite myself and, all the more so, when I realised as the credits rolled just how much the film landed up working its magic on me.

We have kind of reached the point with films about American racism that each new entry into the genre has to work extra hard to engage me. There’s no getting past it; it’s a subject that I find increasingly tiresome. Honestly, there are only so many times I can take being told that racism is, like, bad, before I really, really start to lose it. Aside for the fact that I think constantly and relentlessly portraying a group of people as victims does that group of people absolutely no favours whatsoever – it’s why, as a Jew, I get particularly disheartened when I see a Judaica section at a bookstore that is made up of, like, 90% Holocaust books – there’s just nothing particularly interesting about so simple a moral stance. Yes, racism is very, very bad, and tolerance and acceptance are very, very good, but the truest of clichés are usually the most tedious. 

With this in mind and the fact that the truly brilliant BlacKkKlansman – which was easily the best race-relations movie since 12 Years a Slave and the most purely enjoyable since, well, forever – came out only a few months ago, the opening half-hour or so of the Best of Enemies tested my patience almost to breaking point. Even Sam Rockwell, who is fantastic in even his worst movies, wasn’t doing much for me, and the less said about Henson, of whom I’m not the biggest fan generally, the better.

As the “charrette” - a fancy and presumably French word for a public committee – gets going, though, and Henson and Rockwell’s characters are pitted against one another, the film starts to pick up considerably. After such an unbearable start, Taraji P. Henson becomes really rather good as her character starts to display, if not complexity, then at least greater humanity and the film actually touches on giving both sides of the race divide a voice, even if one is clearly right and the other no less clearly wrong. Most crucially, though, the film finally reveals what it’s really been interested in all along; a redemption story for Rockwell’s C.P. Ellis and a burgeoning friendship between two people from the furthest extremes of the racial divide of the time.

This, of course, is where you start noticing the actually fairly unmistakable similarities to a certain controversial best-picture winner at the most recent Academy Awards. Forget BlacKkKlansman, this is Green Book without wheels, and once that starts to become clear, the film becomes infinitely more enjoyable. With that, of course, comes the caveat that, like Green Book, it is open to all sorts of criticisms; some justified, some undoubtedly not.

The biggest difference between the Best of Enemies and the Oscar winner, though, is that while Green Book was very much about its two leads, this film is much more interested in Rockwell’s character than Henson’s. Ann Atwater is no doubt a crucial part of C.P. Ellis’ story but, despite Taraji P. Henson getting top billing and giving (bad start aside) a fine performance, she is ultimately very much the supporting character in Ellis’ redemptive character arc. This means that the Best of Enemies may fall less foul of some of the harshest criticisms of Green Book in that it’s less historically inaccurate and it appears to have been made with the blessing of the Atwater and Ellis estates, but those who criticised Green Book for being a race movie that commits the cardinal sin of being more interested in the white guy than his black co-star will have a field day with this.

Though it’s perfectly reasonable (albeit largely curmudgeonly) to criticise Bissell for the film’s slow start, its clichés or its sentimentality, it would be a mistake to criticise his decision to focus on Ellis rather than Atwater. Not only does the film never feel anything less than honourable in its intentions, it’s pretty clear that focusing on Ellis simply makes sense dramatically.

There’s not a whole lot to say about the overall wrongness of school segregation, even with the film doing its best to portray the side of those who were worried about what ending such a thing would mean for their own kids, but there is something to be said about exploring the psyche of a man whose ingrained prejudices are challenged by dealing with the subjects of his prejudice on a personal level. It does so in a populist and fairly unsubtle way, sure, but Rockwell’s beautifully modified performance supplies plenty of nuance even when the script itself does not, and there really is something to be said for the film’s willingness to dig just a bit deeper than the lazy “racism is bad” platitudes that it could so easily have rested on.            

The Best of Enemies bombed at the box office and received a drubbing from most critics, but the fact that it has relatively high audience-ratings is actually the most important thing here. Yes, it is, to say the least, uneven, but as a genuinely moving slice of crowd-pleasing cinema that also happens to successfully put a spotlight on some less-than-famous real-life heroes, it acquits itself nicely.


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