Not to be confused with the 2015 documentary Best of Enemies on William F. Buckley and Gore Vidal, this is instead a civil rights period piece focusing on the battle for school integration in Durham, N.C., circa 1971. Given the current state of race relations in these dis-United States, it falls somewhere between Spike Lee’s recent BlacKkKlansman and Green Book in terms of its “based on a true story”-isms. First-time director Bissell’s film follows the lesser-known story of how Klan stronghold Durham was finally dragged kicking and screaming into line with other proudly Southern cities in terms of integration. Leads Henson (barely recognizable under a mountain of Tyler Perry-esque practical makeup) and Rockwell turn in top-notch, emotion-laden performances, buoyed by a supporting cast of equally fine character actors.
Henson is Ann Atwater, a middle-aged black activist, community organizer, and all-around force of nature who, as the film begins, is busy hounding the local city council for more affordable housing for the city’s black residents. The council, however, is (surprise!) entirely composed of KKK members happy to continue the status quo. Atwater’s quixotic quest falls on deaf ears and dumb minds until the local black school burns down under mysterious circumstances, which forces community leaders on both sides of the racial divide to face the alarming prospect of possible integration of the city’s all-white school.
Running parallel to Atwater’s moral mission is Durham’s Klan leader C.P. Ellis (Rockwell, doing some fine work with little more than four distinct facial expressions throughout). Ellis is a true believer in the cause: Early on there’s a scene of him, framed in the heat of the lushly humid Durham night, as he and his Klan cohorts shotgun the bejesus out of a white woman’s house after rumor gets around that she’s been seen keeping close company with a black man. Contrasting this, Ellis is also shown as a devoted family man who supports his long-suffering wife (Heche) and cares for a teenage son with Down syndrome by running the local gas station.
Following the school fire and with the citizens of Durham wildly divided on what to do next, The Best of Enemies then kicks into a wholly unexpected direction when the hamstrung city council hits upon the idea of calling in Bill Riddick (Ceesay) to help as a sort of impartial mediator to the fragmented community. Riddick, a black lawyer from Raleigh, has had some previous success employing a traditional Southern consensus-building technique known as a charrette, in which community leaders and ordinary townspeople hash out their differences over an all-inclusive series of discussions, debates, and lowercase-d Democracy.
Riddick nominates Atwater and Ellis to be the co-chairs of the charrette. The Klan and the council assume that with their man Ellis on board they’re guaranteed to win out, but even strange bedfellows can end up engaging in some pretty heavy pillow talk. No spoilers here, but it’s worth noting that the Klan’s official motto, “Non silba sed anthar,” which translates to “Not self, but others,” begins to have more than just one meaning to the increasingly harried Ellis.
Bissell, who also scripted the film, proves to be a dab hand with dialogue, resulting in some powerhouse monologues on the subjects of race and class in Durham ’71. Previously a producer (The Hunger Games), he infuses The Best of Enemies with a certain verbal panache that adds much to the movie’s sense of place, time, and history.
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