Video Courtesy of STX Entertainment
Warning: This post contains spoilers for the film The Best of Enemies.
I did not know what to expect from the film The Best of Enemies, but what I experienced was a range of emotions—disbelief, pride, anger, discomfort, and finally, hope. If it were not based on the true story of the fight for school integration in Durham, North Carolina in 1971, I would have had a difficult time believing the events of the 2019 film, The Best of Enemies directed by Robin Bissell. That is not to say that Taraji P. Henson and Sam Rockwell did not offer compelling performances as civil rights leader Ann Atwater and Ku Klux Klan leader C.P. Ellis—because they did—but the notion of deep-seated and systemic racial oppression being rectified through charrette, the meetings held for the community to resolve the issue of school segregation, co-chaired by a civil rights activist and the local KKK leader is incredulous. Yet, it is true. Based on the book The Best of Enemies: Race and Redemption in the New South, the film portrays the unlikely beginnings of a lasting camaraderie between Atwater and Ellis. Throughout the film, viewers are presented with Black pain, Black resilience, Black joy, and the hope that justice will prevail, which it does very neatly in the end. Despite the ending, the issues addressed in The Best of Enemies felt eerily familiar as America is still plagued with systemic racism in housing, healthcare, education, and employment that affects the lived experience of Black people across the United States.
What felt true as I watched The Best of Enemies was the prominent role that Black women, particularly women of faith, play in the fight for social justice. Academy Award-winning actress Taraji P. Henson, in her role as Anne Atwater, embodies a kind of holy courage. The film highlights the most notable work of Atwater in the desegregation of Durham Public Schools, however, she was known for more than the events depicted in the film. Atwater was a generous organizer who leads the charge for Black and poor people in the community over several decades. She lent her voice in the face of great evil, stating, “God gave me the gift to reach out and touch.” Atwater is part of the great cloud of witnesses of Black women whose faith informs their activism and understanding of the humanity of all people, including Sojourner Truth, Ella Baker, Septima Poinsette Clark, and Prathia Hall. This faith informed justice is still being witnessed in the life and work of Rev. Traci Blackmon who serves as Executive Minister of Justice & Local Church Ministries for The United Church of Christ, Rev. Jennifer Bailey of the Faith Matters Network, Rev. Neichelle R. Guidry, Dean of Sisters Chapel at Spelman College, and many more who, like Atwater, are getting in the way of racism, sexism, and disparities in healthcare, economics, employment and education.
What also felt true and frightening as I watched The Best of Enemies was the relationship between White Nationalism and White Christianity and the systemic support of racialized oppression. The acting in the film had such depth that it felt all too real. The closing prayer offered at the KKK meeting left me squirming in my seat. I had a visceral reaction every time there was an exchange between Ellis (Rockwell) and members of the city government showing the way in which the government was in bed with the KKK and other White supremacists. I was maddened every time Atwater testified before the all-White, all-male city council as one member blatantly disregarded her by turning his chair so his back would be to her as she spoke. I was infuriated when Ellis was hand chosen by the Mayor (Bruce McGill) to steer the charrette in such a way that so that school segregation would continue to be enforced remarking, “He’s about to hand you the keys to school integration and you’re going to lock the door.” Days after the screening, I was still unsettled. While the costumes, hair, make-up, and set design transport viewers to 1971, I was sitting with the fact that these are not solely historical realities, but rather issues that are alive and present today. There is still a strong relationship between Christian supremacy and White supremacy in the United States. And a quick glance at the headlines shows institutional racism is present in our local, state and national governments in 2019. From Virginia’s Governor Ralph Northam admitting to President Donald Trump’s clarion call to Make America Great Again alongside statements and policies that devalue Black and Brown people, it is evident in the film and today that the fight for justice is rigged.
As much as I enjoyed The Best of Enemies, it was not above critique. In my estimation, the glossy cinematography and upbeat score did not jibe well with the grit and tenor of events. There was a cognitive dissonance present as my eyes and ears were stimulated against the backdrop of racism, especially the heinous words and actions of Ellis and the Ku Klux Klan members. Also, the conversion of Ellis’ ideals, as the Black Gospel choir sang, “God is Tryna Tell You Something” is an overused trope in film that adds to the sanitization, saccharization, and oversimplification of the work of racial reconciliation and redemption. There was no conversation at the KKK meeting as Ellis led the prayer for God to bless the “Invisible Empire” early in the film. There was no conversion as Atwater reminds Ellis “Same God made you, made me” in the parking lot after a charrette. The scene where Ellis has a change of heart after witnessing Black bodies joyfully singing to God, I would argue, dangerously puts the onus on Black people to do the heavy lifting in the work of justice while making a joyful noise despite their pain. Dismantling racism is going to take a lot more than Black folk ushering White people into the presence of God, rather it requires White people facing their own privilege and power and truly recognizing and living out an ethic that all are created in the image and likeness of God, a point that was missed in the film.
The Best of Enemies is a film that arouses a range of emotions but leaves the audience feeling hopeful. This story of expected and unexpected courage, civility and camaraderie in the plight to desegregate Durham Public Schools in 1971 is a must see. And for me, the film piqued my curiosity about the lives of Ann Atwater and C.P. Ellis and the ways in which their story can be studied, adapted, and replicated in the continued plight to dismantle racism, sexism, and other injustices that plague American society.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Rev. Donna Olivia Owusu-Ansah is a preacher, chaplain, teacher, artist, writer, thinker, and dreamer who loves to study the Word of God, encourage others, and worship God. Rev. Owusu-Ansah holds a BS in Studio Art from New York University, an MFA in Photography from Howard University, and a Master of Divinity, Pastoral Theology, from Drew University. You can check out her website at https://www.reverendmotherrunner.com.