Will we never learn? With the wound of the offensive and irresponsible Academy Award winning Green Book still open and bleeding, Hollywood has, after only a little more than a month later, bestowed upon us yet another plain, sanitized look at racial tensions in the South during the 60s and 70s. The Best of Enemies isn’t quite as appalling as that much-maligned Best Picture winner, but it still sacrifices the important story it wants to tell by once again giving the spotlight to the racist white man who has a change of heart, rather than the struggles and victories of the black person who the film is actually supposed to be about.
The Best of Enemies, based off the book of the same name, tells the true story of civil rights activist Ann Atwater (Taraji P. Henson) as she fights for school integration in Durham, North Carolina. Despite the film taking place roughly twenty years after Brown v. Board of Education, some schools remain segregated, so when a fire breaks out at one of the city’s all-black schools, the students have nowhere to go. Thus begins a series of debates known as a charette. Different from the courtroom brawls you normally see portrayed onscreen, a charette is basically a series of scheduled and enforced discussions, which at least sets Best of Enemies apart from similar historical films. Atwater is up against dangerous opposition: Durham’s local Ku Klux Klan, who are determined to keep the schools segregated.
Henson is a terrific actor, embodying Atwater’s brash and fiery determination to see justice through. She’s introduced in a scene where a white councilman purposefully turns his back while a black woman explains the broken plumbing in her apartment. Atwater turns his chair back around, berating the man and demanding that he give his attention and respect to his constituents. The councilman still dismisses them, taking a phone call instead, only for Atwater to take the receiver and strike him on the head with it. She’s a force to be reckoned with, but also proves that she can conduct business with aggressive kindness, rather than always fighting fire with fire.
Despite this, the film is still a bit of a disservice to the actual black woman it’s supposed to be about. Atwater’s daughter attended the school that caught fire, but we rarely see her or anyone else of significance in her life during the film. In fact, we don’t even really see Atwater’s house or home life at all. It slowly becomes obvious that the real main character of Best of Enemies is actually C.P. Ellis, the Exalted Cyclops of the KKK, and the leader of the opposition against Atwater. This is his movie, and his story of redemption and change. Atwater is stuck as the kind black woman that helps him see the light, not having her own arc or change occur throughout the film.
Sam Rockwell is doing tremendous dramatic work as C.P., and the rest of the cast is just as strong, but here he is once again playing an angry racist. I hope that’s not who Rockwell actually is (and now I’m too afraid to try and find out), or maybe his agent really hates him or finds themselves funny, but it’s something that we’ve seen him do too many times now, and it feels like a waste of someone so talented. It’s not like Best of Enemies is a poorly made movie – it’s perfectly serviceable, has great performances and appropriate dramatic beats. Green Book is, at face value, a fine movie as well. But it’s the context of both of these films and the way they frame issues like race that make them stumble, and, intentionally or not, enforce a box office that only seems interested in telling stories from a white perspective.
The message of Best of Enemies seems to be “be nice to your oppressors and maybe they’ll, in turn, be nice to you”. It’s an act of kindness towards C.P.’s family that finally makes the man change his heart and mind, not the actual ideas that Atwater puts forth on repairing race relations and integrating the schools, and not empathy towards his fellow human beings. Atwater simply does something nice for him. It’s the ol’ “meet them halfway” argument, the one that tries to pin blame on both sides. The horror of the KKK is only presented in scenes where they terrorize white liberals – I guess it isn’t upsetting knowing that they terrorize and murder black people, the only way to really scare audiences is to show them harassing white people. It should come as no surprise that this film was directed and written solely by one white man, without the help or input of anyone of color.
Maybe I’m being too cynical. The story that Best of Enemies is based on is one that is genuinely inspiring and heartwarming – moments in the film that seem overly dramatic check out as being true. So points to the film for actually getting the story right, which is more than you can say for Green Book. It also presents racism the way it actually was and is: simply a facet of everyday life, rather than the mindset of a few extreme individuals. But the way the racial tensions are contextualized, as a problem that was solely in the past, without ever connecting them to the continuing problems of the present, is clumsy at best and harmful at worst. The reality is that a true end to school segregation and a full realization of integration still has a long way to go even to this day, and apparently, so do the movies.
2 / 5 Stars
The Best of Enemies is now playing in theaters everywhere.