Empathy is at a premium at the cinema. It’s not often found at the gas station of an Exalted Cyclops in the KKK. The latest in a line of films about sympathetic racists turned good, The Best of Enemies covers a charrette in Durham, North Carolina designed for desegregation. It fumbles its messaging, with an uneasy focus around the white people in the story and a secondary lensing of the black community the story is actually about.
Once again, Sam Rockwell plays a racist capable of reform. This time it’s C.P. Ellis, a local KKK president who, after some resistance, co-chairs the charrette with a scrappy civil rights activist in Ann Atwater, played by Taraji P. Henson. The central conceit is that people as different as them may share more in common with each other than the communities they are representing.
The Best of Enemies is directed by Seabiscuit (2003) producer Robin Bissel and it shows. He does not have the exacting eye of a director. He has still produced complementary performances from his leads. Either he has extracted something worthwhile from them or Rockwell and Henson are the type to show up and turn in this kind of performance anyway. When the leads are on-screen it is a better entry than the award-winning Green Book (2018). When Bissel is left to other subjects, the director meanders tactlessly, liable to slip away into montage, or defecting from the moral compass that ought to guide such a film.
There is an underlying framing problem at work. It would behoove the film to focus on the black perspective. Always take the position of civil rights. Instead, the focus sympathizes with the plight of poor Ellis. It follows his journey through the charrette and how the Klan would terrorize white folk on the committee into making decisions in their interest. It does not care to examine the rhetoric or hate driving their actions. As the film plays out, there is a growing discomfort behind its perspective. Atwater helps Ellis’s boy in the hospital, without much reason except to sway his vote, while his crew terrorizes the town, particularly the white voters, to sway the ballot. Any subtext is lost in its framing of Durham’s white population as the victims.
It could have focused on the children at the heart of the debate. It opens like that is what it intends to do. Someone from the KKK has set their school on fire and now they have no choice but to integrate. The Best of Enemies is so focused on Ellis’s changing convictions, that it misses the most important thing about itself. Atwater’s daughter is a bit character given hardly any presence. The film is more concerned with the horror inflicted on white voters than the burnt school that is its raison d’être. It flitters flagrantly around the central issue to show one side of the affair.
There is a moving friendship at the heart of the story. The best part about The Best of Enemies is when it ends, and we get to see the real-life counterparts living in friendship. They would proceed to tour together and stay as life-long friends after Ellis publicly renounced his status as a high-ranking member of the KKK. This is a film squarely about his own personal sacrifice, one perspective in a subject with other compelling stories to tell. If it were not a white director, would the outcome be the same?
There’s still some credit due. The leads are fantastic. If either get nominated that is fine. They have written a check the director has not cashed. They even receive good support. Babou Ceesay turns in a wonderful performance as charrette leader Bill Riddick, paired well with Henson. Anne Heche is quietly good as Ellis’s wife, it’s a damn shame she doesn’t have more to say. The Best of Enemies is not so much a bad film as it is misguided one. There are far better options – see, Rockwell’s own part in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (2017)– and this simply isn’t the film for our present moment.