Ann Atwater and C.P. Ellis put Walter Matthau and Jack Lemmon to shame. Sure, "The Odd Couple" had opposing quirks and personality traits that kept a laugh track going, but Atwater's and Ellis's deep rooted differences had little to do with humor and plenty to do with prejudice. It turns out a weeklong summit that forced the two to actually talk and listen to one another was all it took to turn them into lifelong friends. Propelled by unsurprisingly strong performances from Taraji P. Henson and Sam Rockwell (a recent Oscar winner), The Best of Enemies offers a well-paced presentation of the moving story.
It was Durham, NC 1971, when racism was still very much a presence in the South, and the community was at odds over school integration. Students at an all-black school were hoping to be admitted to the white school after their building caught on fire. Surely city officials wouldn't make them take their grammar lessons in classrooms reduced to rubble and ash? Yet, when it came time for a vote, that's just what the lawmakers decided. Black activist Ann Atwater was among many outraged citizens to speak up and demand a different outcome. To avoid national outcry, the mayor allowed a man named Bill Riddick to visit and set up one of his "charrettes."
A charrette is a 10-day forum in which members of a community debate an issue and by its conclusion they are expected to present solutions. After much persuading, Riddick got Ellis and Atwater to agree to be charrette co-chairs. It didn't get off to a great start and Riddick realized he'd have to urge both sides to compromise. One of those compromises included letting Ellis set up a KKK display in the high school.
That produced one of the most powerful scenes in the film. Atwater stops a group of black students from tearing down the display, explaining they need to understand how the other side thinks, fixing the KKK robe and staring into the mask. Henson said at a recent screening that the shocked face you see in the film was her "actual visceral reaction" to having to stare straight into the face of evil.
At other times Henson's performance may seem over the top, but just a quick Google search of Ann Atwater and you'll wonder if the actress actually toned down her portrayal. Atwater, as Riddick described in a recent interview with Townhall, really was that boisterous in real life.
The film's best quality is its pacing. I love movies that allow a character to develop gradually and, more importantly, naturally. That's CP Ellis to a tee. As the film opens, the cruel KKK leader is so prejudiced he even terrorizes whites who associate with blacks, covering one poor young woman's house in bullet holes because she is supposedly dating a black man. He sneers at black citizens and refuses to service them at his gas station. Atwater, meanwhile, has a more open mind. It's she who first starts reaching out to Ellis. First it's small talk, and later one especially moving gesture she makes in the latter half of the film helps to convince Ellis that his hate is unfounded.
Thankfully, Ellis eventually realizes that nothing - including the color of his skin - makes him superior to his black neighbors.
After all, as Atwater reminds him in the film, "Same God made you, made me."
The Best of Enemies is in theaters Friday.
We give it an: A