PLOT In the still-segregated South of 1971, an African-American activist and a Klansman find themselves sitting on the same committee.
CAST Sam Rockwell, Taraji P. Henson, Babou Ceesay
RATED PG-13 (language and adult themes)
BOTTOM LINE Strong performances and a strange-but-true story keep this Civil Rights drama from succumbing to formula.
The truth is more interesting than the fiction in “The Best of Enemies,” a well-crafted but only semi-convincing drama about a fascinating chapter in Civil Rights history.
Set in Durham, North Carolina, in 1971, the film zeroes in on a small problem that becomes a major issue: A local black school has been damaged by fire, and the town must now decide whether to put those students in the white school. Into the fray step two prominent locals: Ann Atwater (Taraji P. Henson), a black activist with a hot temper (we first see her smacking a white politician with his own phone), and C.P. Ellis (Sam Rockwell), the taciturn president of the local Klan. Imagine their surprise when they’re nominated as co-chairs of a committee created to find a solution.
You couldn’t ask for better actors than Henson and Rockwell, both quite fine in their roles, but the unusual committee -- known as a charrette -- is the real star of the film. A 10-day forum with local citizens whose decision will become law, the charrette is introduced by an educated outsider, Bill Riddick (Babou Ceesay). The best moments in “The Best of Enemies” happen here, as when a black citizen, Howard Clement (Gilbert Glenn Brown), responds to Ellis’ racist rant with unexpected praise: “He’s the only honest man in here. He hates me and he just told me why.”
Written and directed by Robin Bissell (and inspired by Osha Gray Davidson’s non-fiction book), “The Best of Enemies” shines during the meetings but drifts into formula when it tries to create a narrative arc. As Ellis’ hardline begins to soften, danger rears its head in the form of suspicious Klan colleagues (including Wes Bentley as the smirking Floyd Kelly). An act of kindness from Atwater prompts a transgressive visit from Ellis’ wife, Mary (Anne Heche). These familiar beats serve their function but don’t offer much insight into the characters or into the complicated issues at the heart of racism.
“The Best of Enemies” touches on those issues only glancingly. As a result, the climactic moment in which Ellis renounces white supremacy arrives a little suddenly and without enough information. What prompted such an utterly radical change? In a 1999 interview with his local newspaper, Ellis explained that he eventually realized poor whites had the same problems as blacks: housing, employment, fair wages, self-respect. What, he asked, “had I spent all my life fighting people like Ann for?”