IT IS hard to talk about “The Best of Enemies” without mentioning “Green Book”. This year’s Best Picture winner pleased audiences and the Academy, but drew ire from critics for its “white saviour” narrative (like many award-winning films about race, “Green Book” explored prejudice from the perspective of a white character). The film’s detractors argued that it does little to advance the cause of racial justice, instead comforting cinemagoers by presenting racism as a purely historical phenomenon.
“Green Book” may have seemed the apotheosis of the genre, but “The Best of Enemies” is contending for that title. Also based on a true story, it is a similarly slick, entertaining and shallow drama. Set in Durham, North Carolina, in the 1970s, the film focuses on the relationship between Ann Atwater (Taraji P. Henson), who runs a radical activist group called Operation Breakthrough, and C.B. Ellis (Sam Rockwell), the president of the local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan. This odd pair is brought together when an electrical fire burns down the school in the black part of town, and Atwater’s group pushes for full integration as the best solution.
When the city council rules in favour of segregation, and the NAACP responds with a lawsuit, the local judge opts for a novel approach. He proposes a summit, which Atwater and Ellis must co-chair, in the hope that they will find a solution. Ellis is reluctant to participate, but his allies—including the city-council president (Bruce McGill)—encourage him to represent their views. Atwater, on the other hand, relishes her chance to make Ellis uncomfortable.
The film, written and directed by newcomer Robin Bissell, makes a wise creative choice at the start. It gives equal time to Atwater and Ellis, showing them each to be powerful leaders in their communities. Scene by scene, however, this equitable approach erodes. Ellis becomes the only fully realised character, with details designed to make him more empathetic than his prejudice might allow: he owns a struggling gas station in town, and is burdened emotionally and financially with a mentally disabled child who is confined to a state hospital. Mr Rockwell does wonders with the material, as he did in “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” (2017), where he played a racist police officer who finds a measure of redemption. Here, his transformation is even greater, and the acting challenge steeper. Yet Mr Rockwell, never afraid of being unlikeable, fails to hit a false note and is riveting throughout.
Atwater, on the other hand, recedes into the background in the film’s second act. Ms Henson’s acting chops are not similarly tested as Atwater has no character arc. She exists as the mouthpiece of a movement, and the film is less interested in her humanity than in her ability to change Ellis’s mind. In one of the more problematic scenes, Atwater tries to make peace with Ellis by equating her worries for her children growing up in an unfair world with his concerns for his disabled son. It is presented as a key step towards their eventual compromise, but the film’s suggestion that years of systemic oppression of black people is somehow equivalent to one white person’s suffering is painfully obtuse.
When Atwater, Ellis and the rest of the committee are brought together for their two-week-long summit, they are subjected to patronising treatment by the organisers. They are forced to sit in assigned seats in a school cafeteria, with each of them next to a person of another race, and given strict instructions not to talk about any serious issues. On the last day, they are sent in buses on a “field trip” to the dilapidated school. They are treated like children, and the film, by offering a tidy story with a neat conclusion, treats viewers like children, too.
As in “Green Book”, “The Best of Enemies” can be funny and manages some poignancy. It gives audiences a redemptive story to remind them that change is indeed possible. But films about activism and hard-earned rights should not be so easy to watch. And a film that aims to change minds should not be so forgettable.
“The Best of Enemies” is screening in America now
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