Movie Review: The Best of Enemies

by: Cathy Foreman

Let’s talk about a little movie that features our very own Durham, NC and every woman’s champion, Taraji P. Henson, entitled “The Best of Enemies.” Warning, this piece has plenty of spoilers.

Overall this was a great movie. For me, I love when I get to see and hear about these unsung heroes, their accomplishments and the strides they overcame to make a better place for us all. A lot of the time, we only get to hear about the high-profile scenarios, but we know there were grass-root endeavors all over that are and were just as pivotal. The protagonist, Ann, makes that known within this story when in one scene, she tells Howard Clements more or less that he is out of touch. He’s been away at college and up north doing things of hi-light, while there is real grass-roots work being done down here.

The tone of the film is set from the very beginning as we watch a black screen with voice-overs from both CP Ellis played by Sam Rockwell and Ann Atwater (Henson). They can be heard saying:

One of the most emotional nights of my left was the night I was initiated into the Klan; I had been waiting all my life.”

CP Ellis

I was not gonna take No for an answer. I have to have the word Yes. What you want to be doing, keep believing. Stand on it baby, stand on it!

Ann Atwater

From the jump, there are a few important scenes for this film. As Ann pointedly lets us know “This is what I do”, she proceeds to show us with several moments throughout the film. The first of which would have her sitting in Councilman Bill Atkins’ office, played by Dolan Wilson, insisting on being heard at the next City Council meeting regarding a fair housing dispute. As he takes a call and completely disregards Ann, she walks behind his desk, snatches the receiver and wacks him up side the head. We know from this very encounter that Ann is a force to be reckoned with and we will see more moments like this … often. Throughout the film she will live up to her nickname “Rough House Annie.”

The next important scene, at least for me, is when when Ann is actually at the City Council Meeting and it’s her turn to speak. One of the members, Charles Steele (played by Al Hamacher) turned his back on her. In that moment I became enraged. How dare you turn your back on me while I speak? We all want and deserve to be heard. It’s one thing if you’re looking through me and tuning me out, but it’s a completely different ball game when you act as if I don’t exist and turn your back on me. To add insult to injury, as soon as I stop speaking, you turn to face forward. Woo chile, I can’t tell you what that moment did to me.

And the last important scene in these first few moments is when we see Floyd Kelly played by Wes Bentley , a Klansman ask CP, “Are we going to do that thing?” Then we see CP, Floyd and another Klansman sitting outside a young white woman’s home as she pulls in. They say she’s dating a nigger and the neighbors have been complaining. Next we see them standing outside of her home with shotguns loaded and ready to fire. CP gives them the queue, “we wait until the light comes on.” We see the young woman walking through her home ending upstairs and as soon as she turns the light on, they open fire. This scene goes on for what seems like forever. I was thinking, “Damn, how many shots do they have? Are they trying to scare her or kill her?” For me this was telling of the head-space/mindset CP was currently in.

When the black school, East End Elementary, catches fire and is shut down, this becomes the catalyst for the base for the film: school integration. Ann takes up the charge by once again heading to someone she believes to be an ally and lets him know they need a new school. The unfortunate thing about this, unbeknownst to Ann, Councilman Odham played by Bruce McGill, has reached out the CP and forewarned him about Ann and what she had planned with the Council. Odham beckoned CP to “bring his people” and CP followed through, like a champ, as we find out when Ann is marching with her team to the meeting. When the doors open, to Ann’s surprise the room was completely full, leaving them to “stand at the back of the room”.

still from The Best of Enemies
still from The Best of Enemies

From here, we again see Ann go on the defense with the Council ultimately resulting in a pseudo confrontation with Councilman Steele, as he turns his back on her once again. I felt Ann and was completely with her as she walked up to the bench and swung his chair around. And when she said, “Now what we talking about is impo’tant and you gon’ damn well listen to us”, she meant that thang with every fiber of her being. In that moment, she was superwoman and if they, the council didn’t already know who and what she was.. they knew now.

Now the real work begins. The council had agreed, against their better judgement, to allow the black students back into the still smoldering and chaotic East End Elementary on an amended schedule. Ann is not having it and it has now made it’s way to the courts who feel the pressure of the need to act … and to act accordingly. A false move on their part could be detrimental to their future. Enter the charrette.

It was funny … no one knew what the hell a charrette was and wanted to know essentially what kind of made up mess is this. Just for your knowledge, a charrette is a meeting in which all stakeholders in a project attempt to resolve conflicts and map solutions. So, they call in Bill Riddick played by Babou Ceesay, who is widely known for successfully running this type of events. Initially Bill is apprehensive because he knows what’s at stake and seemingly the parties involved, but he gives in and accepts the challenge, which it ultimately proves to be.

The first task for Bill is to get CP and Ann to sit down and meet. Bill wants them to be the co-chairs of the committee as they seem to be the speakers for their respective communities. Ann is not too keen and CP, well CP is basically like what the hell I look like … “I’m the President of the Klan.” When Bill explains to him why he wants him and further that he was directed to him, CP concedes that he is the voice but again, this shit ain’t gonna fly. Next we see CP sitting with Floyd and Garland Keith played by Nick Searcy, leader of the White Citizens Council (WCC) talking about the benefits of having CP at the table and having a pulse on what’s happening so that they can act accordingly.

Finally we see Ann and Bill sitting in a cafeteria waiting on CP. Ann knows he’s not going to show. He’s already 20 minutes late. When low and behold CP walks in and as Bill throws his hand in the air motioning for CP to come over, CP walks around, paces a little bit, walks around again essentially circling like a vulture. I can hear him saying to himself, plain as day, “What the hell am I doing in here.” He resigns himself to a seat at a table, next to Ann and Bill because the notion of sitting with them is just unseemly. The conversation slowly begins when it quickly comes to head and CP ultimately walks out. Neither of them wants that seat, let alone with one another. CP ends up having another chat with Councilman Odham who cites to him an abridged line from the Klan Creed, “Failure to know your enemy will give him aid and comfort.” This sparks something in CP to where he knows this is what he as to do.

Ultimately Ann and CP become the chairs with a senate committee of around eight additional non-partisan people, back and white. CP makes a list of his side and gets to work with a key a member of his group, Garland Keith (WCC) and starts to figure out how many votes they will have when it comes time to vote. They have at least two who are up in the air, so you already know what’s going to happen … they have to sway them. It will prove to be harder than he thought.

The beauty of this story is that the more CP is forced to hear about the foolishness that blacks have to endure, the more his rational since of human decency appears to take over. He’s actually trying to make sense of it and quantify the nonsense that is. Added to this, the dark-horse of this story is CP’s own wife Mary, played by Anne Heche, who doesn’t think the way he does. And she challenges him on a few things and beats to her own drum, which he seems perfectly okay with.

still from The Best of Enemies
still from The Best of Enemies

After the first official meeting of the charrette, a pastor suggests a good way to end the night would be to sing some gospel. Well CP and the white members of the committee were not having that. To that suggestion and as a retort, CP has this bright idea of a trade, I’ll give in to the gospel if I can display some of my Klan material. Talk about a proverbial shit storm. After much debate and rebuff from Ann, ultimately there is a concession to his trade, which she vehemently opposes. The next scenes are extremely poignant. As the next meeting begins, we can see the display of Klan material with the addition of a manikin suited in Klan garb … hood and all. As some young men take an opportunity to make a mess of the display, Ann catches them. What she says to them, “The Klan is giving you a window to look through. You need to be reading it … so you can understand.” It was a point well made. As she attempts to straighten the area back up, Ann has a moment that seemingly rips through her soul. As she places the hood back on the manikin and it appears she is standing face to face with the devil. You can see and feel how visceral this moment was for her.

Later CP has an equally chilling moment when the chickens come home to roost. One of his sons, who is in a mental facility, was having some difficulties and he had to rush over to take care of him. Seeing his son in distress and not being able to do anything about it drove home a feeling of helplessness that was mentioned to him in another conversation about the similarities, but differences between our two races. Out of that moment of despair, an act of kindness from an unlikely source, Ann, and other events would inevitably sooth the savage beast. It is here where we see the shift in who CP is into who he will become.

Yes, this story has the same narrative. Yes, I know you’re tired of hearing how we couldn’t have done it without the help of “the man”, but listen to me for a second. For all we’ve accomplished and there is much, there was someone who helped pave the way whether financial, influence or with their time. We’re strong, I’m definitely not questioning or disputing that. It’s ingrained in us. We can and do make things happen. It’s not a light cross to bare and we damn sure do the best we can, but if there’s a hand reaching across the isle to help pull us up and over … if we’ve vetted said hand and are certain that it’s not going to cause us harm or disservice … why not?

I anticipate a healthy debate. Let’s get to it!

For Taraji, I anticipate this being her second Oscar nomination with the potential for a win. I feel that she played Ann well and Ann would have been proud. After viewing some interviews with Ann, I can certainly see her spitfire spirit, with her no nonsense ways. Taraji definitely portrayed that well. While this will be well deserved for the actress, I would be remiss in saying that the nod and potential win will come with the absurdity that you have to become completely unidentifiable in a role in order to be considered, let alone win. This has been proven with Charlize Theron playing Aileen Wuornos in Monster, Nicole Kidman playing Virginia Wolf in The Hours and Halle Berry playing Leticia in Monster’s Ball. It’s not necessarily that way for men, but we’ve seen examples of this for let’s say Tom Hanks in Philadelphia playing Andrew Beckett or Robert De Niro in Raging Bull playing Jake La Motta. As an actor you’ve dedicated your life to the craft and will do what it takes to be the best in your chosen role. But who said you’re not deserving or the nom or win if you have altered your whole being? It’s absolutely ludicrous and they deserve better. Again my kudos to Taraji, she did a hell of a job.

Oh before I go, I have to talk about a couple of the previews. I think they are worth mentioning; one pseudo bio, one thriller and one comedy.

First we have “Rocketman”, which is a pseudo bio pic about John’s early years. It’s a tale of a kid named Reginald Kenneth Dwight who would become ELTON JOHN. I always enjoy anything that lends a hand telling how someone came to be the person or in this case ICON they are. So this, while cited as fantastical, will surely give us a peak into who the man was before he became the MAN we all know and love as Elton.

“People don’t pay to see Reg Dwight, they pay see Elton John” ~ Elton John

Next we have, The Intruder, which features Michael Ealy, Megan Goode and Dennis Quaid. At first I get vibes of Cold Creek Manor, which featured Dennis and Sharon Stone, it’s virtually almost the same premise but for this film, Dennis ends up being the deranged sociopath and from what I can tell, he’s really good at it. It’s a tried and true plot that we keep going to see, as if we don’t know the outcome. But, who doesn’t love a good thriller and if you get to see an actor play a different type of role, it’s pretty cool. I wonder what would happen if we pitted Dennis’ sociopath, Charlie against Ealy’s sociopath, Carter from The Perfect Guy. That’s a thought.

“It’s okay, we’re not dying today” ~ Carter

And finally, there’s this comedy featuring Diane Keaton… she does comedy so well. It also features Leah Perlman, Pam Grier, and Jacki Weaver who freakishly reminds me of Sally Struthers. I felt the same way with her role in “Widows“. Any-who, this flick is about Martha (Keaton) who goes to a retirement village to die, but it turns out she is going to live her best life and recapture her youth by becoming the cheerleader she once was. Enter Grier, Perlamn and Weaver. I laughed out loud, so I will surely see this.

“You’re one of us, except with higher boobies” ~Sheryl