Directed By Robin Bissell
Starring – Taraji P. Henson, Sam Rockwell, Wes Bentley
The Plot – Based on a true story, the film centers on the unlikely relationship between Ann Atwater (Henson), an outspoken civil rights activist, and C.P. Ellis (Rockwell), a local Ku Klux Klan leader who reluctantly co-chaired a community summit, battling over the desegregation of schools in Durham, North Carolina during the racially-charged summer of 1971. The incredible events that unfolded would change Durham and the lives of Atwater and Ellis forever.
Rated PG-13 for thematic material, racial epithets, some violence and a suggestive reference
– Eye for detail. With an on-going story that is based entirely during the early 70’s, Bissell’s finest quality as a director is the attention she channels in generating the proper aesthetics. Beyond articulating the heat of the sunbaked temperature, which vibrantly reflects that of the underbelly of tension by a group refusing to change with the times, the film also uses its budget for wardrobe and automobile choices that were literally ripped from 70’s pop culture. What’s important is that nothing feels out of place or remotely counterfeit to where it’s plucked and placed, and this makes the story setting transition feel that much more fruitfully realized, keeping with the consistency of recollection that is out of this world in terms of its depiction.
– Charismatic performances. While the casting of Henson and Rockwell is a bit too gracious in terms of visual likeness to their real life counterparts, the duo do a magnificent job in juggling the complexities that each battle in the face of change. For Rockwell, the transformation is obvious: we have the leader of a racist organization, whose ignorance is eventually silenced the more he learns that color is merely only that, and that these are real people who he’s hurting. Rockwell maintains the air of energy associated with his comedic roles, all the while combining it with the dramatic pulse for long-winded speech deliveries that have made him a sought-after commodity. Henson herself has a flare for the dramatic, instilling a personality in Ann that brings the elements of bravery and resiliency to the forefront. The film thrives the most when the duo are on-screen together, but the ever-changing complexion to the way they view each other is better documented during scenes of isolation, and it establishes a twinkle of magic between two Hollywood heavyweights that each bring the thunder for such an important story, especially to a world still dealing with racial inequalities.
– Simmering soundtrack. Music plays such a pivotal role to the very pulse of the events that transpire in the script, and each insertion of audible familiarity is deposited without so much as an ounce of topical or obvious nature, that often take away the message of its inclusion. Roy Orbison, Al Green, and my personal favorite: Bill Withers are just a few of the names that play against what feels like such a lawless and evocative setting, and it adds a layer of depth and nuanced intensity to the tonal inconsistencies, which can sometimes feel overwhelming in the heart of the material. Setting a film in the south during a 70’s can be daring in what it’s trying to depict, but if it gives us one more chance to soak of that Southern sizzle of collective song stimulation, then I will be in every single time.
– Surprises within the screenplay. Some things that I commend this film for is in the touches of originality that left me appreciating as so much more than a two person show. For one, the supporting cast themselves are anything but one-dimensional characters, and the over two hour runtime gives more than enough opportunity for each of them to breakout of the subdued shadow that supporting roles can sometimes force. Two such actors, Babou Ceesay and Gilbert Glenn Brown, stole the show for me, breathing these articulate, open-minded people, who provide a sense of social commentary for each respective side of the color spectrum. Also, the necessity to include Ann’s flawed moral compass is another aspect that I give the film great respect for. It would be easy to focus solely on C.P., and what needs to change from within him, but Ann is someone whose darkest adversity has also rubbed off on her, and it’s led to a female protagonist who battles just as many demons as her white male adversary. Race subgenre films are usually one note when it comes to who leads and who follows, but “The Best of Enemies” reminds us of the condemning similarities that bind them.
– Strength in adversity. After a movie like “Green Book” taking Best Picture honors last year for feeling a bit too shielded of its material, it’s nice to see a film like this come along and remind us that the sweetest rewards of unity are only fully realized from the deepest conflicts, and it gives the story that much more of an urgency from within, because this town could literally burn to the ground at any moment. For my money, films depicting racism should always offer a gut-punch to audiences that endure them, and while “The Best of Enemies” isn’t a knock-out blow in this regard, it leaves enough damage on the complexion of audience feelings to leave you feeling stimulated by it, long after you leave the theater. For a PG-13 movie, there are scenes of daring nature, and it doesn’t balk whenever it starts to feel the weight of its daring impact.
– Insightful post credit offerings. If you’re seeing this film, definitely stay in your seats for the film’s epilogue, which includes footage taken from real life interviews between C.P and Ann that better paint the vibes in friendship that the film otherwise stops too early to fully realize. What’s so effective about these vital inserts is that the air of rivalry from between them didn’t die, even all the way to both of their final days on Earth. In particular, there’s a scene of the two dancing that reaches back into the arms of time, and allows the two aging figures on-screen to emulate their youthful strides for even one more minute, and it’s proof that the memory of these two touched so many people, yet it was the work that they did on each other that carved out two monumental figures with racial integration in Southern schools.
– Dry spots. The first hour of this film was a bit of a challenge to get through for me, not because of the pacing of the film, mind you, but because outside of C.P’s introduction, we go so long without a flare for the dramatic in the pulse of this story. It almost gives a sense of what’s transpiring outside of this group is less important to the context of the story, only to be put on pause until the film absolutely requires it. Thankfully, the final forty minutes of the film is easily the highlight for me, but it’s such a task in getting there that some might turn back before making the upward climb through 128 minutes of dialogue driven material.
– Convenient and manipulative plot device. C.P Ellis did in fact have a mentally handicap son, who lived his life in a group home, but my problem is more with how this tier is included into the film, making it feel every bit as predictable as it is assisting. On that second adjective, I mean that the film only cuts to it when it needs reason to tie clunky storytelling together. Likewise, this subplot is the breath of air that the film gives us to never completely hate Rockwell’s character, allowing him enough wiggle room to get out of the ties that he binds himself in early during a disgusting scene that tests your first impression of him. What’s so obvious is that his son is brought into the fold in the immediately next scene after this introduction, making me roll my eyes because I knew that this kid was only going to be called upon for the meandering.
– Technical issues. While not the biggest of blunders here, the editing to me felt a bit too strained, as well as yearning for the two hour plus runtime that would otherwise be unnecessary. Anyone who knows me, knows I love long-take sequences in a film, but here their only intention is to halt the audience from looking away from a facial reaction (Particularly from Henson) after engaging in something humbling for her character. There are honorable intentions in this kind of visual creativity, but the reaching scenes never pull anything of depth for the performances themselves, and as a result, we’re left with with sequences that feel a bit delayed in their transition, instead of converging in one fluid movement that solidifies consistency.
– Tonal inconsistencies. I feel weird asking if a film about racism is a comedy, but the first half of this film plays its terrible events with a sense of ironic dark humor that is confirmed in the gleeful musical score and lively line delivery that could’ve definitely used another take. On a whole, the tone of the film never blends together as one cohesive unit, often feeling like a film of two halves, where each of them blend about as well as a train-wreck approaching each other at full force. In my opinion, the film should’ve remained faithful to being a drama. The humor itself never worked for me, and only adds confusion to scenes and sequences that are anything but humorous.
My Grade: 6/10 or C+