Hollywood is having a moment with films based on true stories of American racial strife that make us feel as if harmony could be possible, if we just talk to each other. Enter "The Best of Enemies," based on the 1971 school desegregation in Durham, N.C., wherein a Ku Klux Klan Exalted Cyclops locked horns with an African-American sharecropper's daughter and community organizer — and she prevailed. Through the experience, they became lifelong friends. It's a remarkable message of human connection, but the sanded-down cinematic narrative has a serious perspective problem.
Robin Bissell makes his directorial debut with the film based on the book "The Best of Enemies: Race and Redemption in the New South" by Osha Gray Davidson. The book, written by a white man, was adapted for the screen and directed by a white man, and therein lies the problem — the very uneven story is weighted heavily toward the journey of redeemed Klansman C.P. Ellis (Sam Rockwell).
Force of nature Taraji P. Henson portrays black activist Ann Atwater as a mouthy and fierce advocate for her community. When a black elementary school goes up in flames, it ignites the debate over school desegregation. A judge enlists Bill Riddick (Babou Ceesay) to organize a communitywide meeting to work on a resolution. Bill promptly presses Ann and C.P. into service as co-chairs.
Bissell has needlessly manipulated the real story, completely missing what makes it significant. In reality, C.P. and Ann bonded over their struggles in poverty, recognizing their shared oppression under larger capitalistic structures, and shared a salvation in gospel music. In Bissell's script, the connection between C.P. and Ann in the film is tenuous at best. One can see more chemistry in the archival footage in the epilogue.
Most egregiously, Ann's perspective is completely underwritten, without any personal history and the single humanizing factor of one daughter, who appears only briefly. The film is skewed toward C.P. and his transformational triumph, which does, in fact, spring from Ann's relentless, unrecognized effort to reach out to him.
The film offers up the kind of easy-to-digest pablum that provides emotional catharsis and a safe space for white liberals to tut disapprovingly at racism, but it never pushes anyone to question their own role within — and personal benefit from — white supremacist capitalist patriarchy. These kinds of films, which can't bear the weight of their own structural inequality, have long worn out their welcome.