Ann Atwater was a single black mother in the South of the 1960s and 1970s, raising a family on her own and dedicating her life to the fight for civil rights.
C.P. Ellis was the Exalted Grand Cyclops of the Durham, North Carolina, branch of the KKK, a spiteful and small-minded but locally powerful man whose ignorance and racism were matched only by his paranoia about “the blacks taking over the city.”
The story of how Ann and C.P. not only found common ground but became close friends is of course the stuff of movies — and as you might expect, Taraji P. Henson and Sam Rockwell deliver powerful work as the leads in writer-director Robin Bissell’s “The Best of Enemies.”
But despite the strong performances and more than a few audience-pleasing moments where peace and love triumph over stupidity and bigotry, the film travels such an obvious path and falls into such a predictable rhythm, it doesn’t quite carry the emotional resonance such a powerful true-life story should convey.
Henson is a force as the world-weary and yet tireless Ann, a dedicated single mother who is practically the unofficial mayor of the black community in Durham — forever fighting for a level playing field, whether she’s representing the tenants of a criminally neglectful slumlord at City Council meetings or advocating for improvements in the school system.
Meanwhile, Rockwell’s C.P. Ellis — always with a mouthful of chewing tobacco, usually sporting a crooked, condescending grin, casually spitting out the N-word seemingly every other sentence — is reveling in the twisted glory of being the head moron in charge of the local KKK.
A typical week for C.P. and his half-wit minions entails shooting up the home of a white woman who has a black boyfriend, heading out to the gun range for target practice, and getting sloshed at the local bar, united in their racism.
When a fire breaks out at the black school, causing extensive damage, the NAACP joins Ann in a legal fight to desegregate Durham’s schools — and that eventually leads to a court-ordered series of community meetings over a two-week period, after which a 12-person panel (six white, six black) will cast a binding vote, with a two-thirds majority needed for desegregation.
The co-chairs of the panel? That’s right: Ann Atwater and C.P. Ellis.
The two mortal enemies are forced to meet with one another, eat lunch with one another, and actually talk to one another. You can imagine how that goes, at least at the start.
Writer-director Bissell is a little too fond of move-the-plot-along montages, where we cut from a tense or funny bit of dialogue to scenes accompanied by songs ranging from Donovan’s “Hurdy Gurdy Man” to Bill Withers’ “Grandma’s Hands.”
Bruce McGill and Nick Searcy play town elders whose fine suits and relatively sophisticated ways do little to cloak their racism. Wes Bentley plays C.P.’s right-hand man, a vile caricature. They’re all so monstrously hateful, so rigid in their thinking, C.P. at least seems like a human being by comparison.
Sam Rockwell’s performance and character arc are more than a little reminiscent of his Oscar-winning turn a couple of years ago in “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.”
I was a huge fan of that film, but not everyone bought the sudden transformation of Rockwell’s character. And though this time around Rockwell is playing a real-life person who really DID change his ways, when “The Best of Enemies” yields the floor to C.P. and gives him the heroic speech, while the REAL hero Anna looks on, it doesn’t quite feel right.
‘The Best of Enemies’
STXfilms presents a film written and directed by Robin Bissell. Rated PG-13 (for thematic material, racial epithets, some violence and a suggestive reference). Running time: 133 minutes. Now showing at local theaters.