I honestly cannot fathom the reasoning behind Robin Bissell’s The Best of Enemies. The magnitude of ignorance necessary to make this film in our current political and social climate is awe inspiring. Worse, not only is the entire endeavor ill-advised and ill-timed; it is also insultingly simplistic. The film lacks the moral and artistic spine necessary to make such a film as what it wants to be.
Saying “based on a true story” is a bit like saying “buyer beware”. The film follows CP Ellis (Sam Rockwell) and Ann Atwater (Taraji P. Henson). CP is the grand exalted cyclops of the klu klux klan-which is a bunch of fancy schmancy words for a leader of a domestic terrorist organization. Ann is the leader of the local black activists’ group Operation Breakthrough.
Will these two ever see past their wacky differences and just get along?
Bissell’s attempt is obvious, he wants us to sit down and talk. The cure to the disharmony in our nation is understanding. It is through understanding that we will find common ground. For many things this is true. But for integration and basic human rights, it seems cruel and wildly stupid that oppressed peoples should have to meet with their oppressors and argue for something that is as plain as day; they are people, citizens, and thus worthy of respect and the same freedoms all citizens are privileged to.
I will admit that people changing their bigoted and prejudiced ways is not unheard of. It takes time though, and hardly ever happens through “conversation”. People are weird, complex, and quite frankly nonsensical. When it comes to the things that change people’s mind-it’s the damnedest things sometimes.
After a local black school has an electrical file the black citizens of Durham petition to integrate the schools. The judge instead passes the decision back down to the citizens. Bill Riddick (Babou Ceesay) is brought in to orchestrate a “charrette” between the black and white citizens of Durham. They will draw up a resolution to integrate and submit it to the town council.
Of course, Rockwell’s CP is chosen to be the voice of White Durham. The leader of a domestic terrorist organization is a down-home hard-working family man. Oh sure he might be a little bigoted and hold meetings of an organization which once lynched black people until the government finally saw fit to pass a law making lynchings illegal, but deep down he’s a good man.
I’m just kidding; the United States government never banned lynching.
But that’s okay. Bissell, for all his faults, knows if we saw the unvarnished hate and hellish reality CP put the black people of Durham through, we might not be so forgiving of his “backward” thinking.
So he shows us CP showing up at a white woman’s house in the dead of night, along with other members of the domestic terrorist group, and firing their shotguns into her house. She is being punished for the high crime of being believed of dating a black man. Bissell films this almost as if he himself is recording history-from a distance. David Lazenberg’s camera is meant to be objective but comes off as cool and distant. We see the poor woman ducking as CP and his co-conspirators unload shotgun shells into her house. But we never see the woman afterward. We just cut away to the next scene.
Bissell goes through great pains to show us CP the man. We see him have breakfast with his family, talk to his kids, even argue good-naturedly with his wife. He visits his mentally challenged son at the local hospital, he is a man with a good and loving heart. He only tortures black people on the weekends- apparently.
Ann is chosen as the voice of black Durham but she has little to no bearing in The Best of Enemies. Shock! I do not mean to say she has no role, but her role is inconsequential. We do not see her eat with her kids. We see her wave goodbye to them and chase after them to give them their lunch. But we do not see her have a conversation with them as we see CP do with his own.
We are treated to exactly one scene of her working the phones at Operation Breakthrough. But we are given several scenes of CP both at the assembly hall with his fellow bigots and the gun range. Bissell wants us to understand CP but lacks the empathy to have us understand Ann.
You could argue that this is by design. Maybe Bissell is acting under the assumption that we do not need to understand Ann. That CP is the one who needs understanding for if we do not see the good in him how can we hope to buy his transformation. Fair, except The Best of Enemies, shows us character after character, black and white, tell Ann she needs to “listen” and stop “fighting everyone”.
“Rough house Annie” is her nickname, and the movie tries to paint her as somewhat unreasonable. Her anger, though, is understandable. She grew up in the south of a country that has systematically, from stem to stern, tried to murder her in some fashion or another. But she should really just sit back and listen to what the nice poor white man has to say.
Which brings us to the most crucial failing of the half baked The Best of Enemies. It lacks the moral conviction of its own premise. For a movie which purports to be about sitting down and having difficult conversations, the characters within in discussing precious little. What could have been a promising searing look into the American consciousness on race, instead, Bissell indulges in Hollywood malarkey,
Bissell stuffs the movie full of scenes in which characters make impassioned speeches to other characters. Howard Clement (Gilbert Glenn Brown) lays out a calm and heart-wrenching argument. All parents wish to protect their children, black parents have a special burden. Bissell and Lanzenberg cut to Rockwell’s face as the music swells. But nothing is said.
Instead, they cut to CP and his friend Carevie (Bruce McGill) talking about how they walked right into that trap. Another instance the camera lingers on Henson’s face as the town “debates” rages on in the background. Their voices muffled before she storms out at her wit’s end.
The Best of Enemies is filled with emotional and dramatic grandstanding but does little of the actual legwork necessary to make the moments pay off. Bissell’s script for all its talk about the charrette never bothers with the basic act of witnessing people hash it out. The majority of the scenes are like the ones listed above—someone delivers an impassioned monologue; we cut to another character for a reaction; cue the sad music; next scene.
The style undercuts the basic conversation aspect of the entire exercise in favor of cheap dramatics. The power of conversation is gutted and rendered pointless by cloying sentimentality. For as much as I loathed every passing second of The Best of Enemies, I can see a brilliant challenging difficult movie inside begging to be released.
Bissell does nail one thing though, class. CP and Ann are both working poor. Both are the head of their own organizations while also having to maintain relationships with similar organizations run by college-educated upper-class types. Racism has often been used as a wedge between the races and Best of Enemies recognizes this and to some degree tries to comment on it.
CP must follow orders from Carvie who runs the genteel version of the klan. Ann clashes with Howard who runs a more prestigious black activist group. Bissell is pointedly and shrewdly making a statement about class divisions. How they can hamper us, and if unchecked, how petty differences can destroy what could be powerful alliances.
But it all comes crashing down. No one actually talks with anyone. The Best of Enemies is lose with its dialogue and characterizations.
The extra padding underneath Henson’s dress is meant to make her seem larger than she is. But Henson is never allowed to fully develop Ann. Consequently, she is never allowed to disappear in the role. Bissell lets her play broad but often times it’s more distracting and theatrical than it is believable.
Rockwell, by comparison, is given almost nothing to do and so does almost nothing. He’s not sleepwalking but an actor cannot create a character if the script is too lily-livered to create one for him. In order for us to swallow CP’s redemption arc, Bissell tries to make CP relatable.
On top of that, the vote on whether to integrate lacks any dramatic build up. CP announces his yea vote for integration and tears up his klan membership card. Except-why does he do this? I’ve sat through Best of Enemies and I can’t tell you when or why he came to this conclusion. For all the close ups of Rockwell’s face, we are never allowed insight into the inner workings of CP.
I’m reminded of a moment in Hostiles. A US Cavalry officer tells Wes Studi’s character, a tribal chief, how America has wronged and decimated the native population. I agreed with the sentiment but was confused at how or what changed his mind. I know why I believe those things but in moments like this knowing my own thoughts and beliefs isn’t enough. In other words, Bissell doesn’t show his work.
None of this is helped by Bissell forcing a visual mundanity onto Lanzenebrg’s camera. What little visual flourishes he manages come in the late-night meetings with the klan. Bright red lights as the evening fog rolls in, headlights shining off the chrome of the other cars, as 70’s psychedelic music plays. In other words, exactly what you’d expect to see in a civil rights era movie devoid of imagination and gumption.
I imagine a great swath of well-meaning white people will flock to Bissell’s movie. Assured that it is possible for a bigot to change—and it is. But what goes unsaid is that while CP came to see the light, his “brothers” did not. What does it profit a community if it converts the president of the klan but is still left with the klan itself? I don’t know the answer to that question. But more disturbing, I don’t think the people behind The Best of Enemies even asked it.