Every once and a while a true story comes along that surely is stranger than fiction. The Best of Enemies, a biopic which follows the contradictory duo, Ann Atwater and C.P. Ellis, is one of these stories. Based on the real-life account and eventual friendship of a Ku Klux Klan President and a civil rights activist, director Robin Bissell was given the keys to this unique and dramatic narrative. Fortunately for him, the subject matter of The Best of Enemies is captivating enough to hold interest, at least for most of the 133-minute runtime. The film is flawed, however; the editing is choppy, the pacing is off, and the overall tone seems to be inconsistent. On the other hand, the wonderful performances by the cast, coupled with an incredible story to tell, make up for most of the film's faults.
In 1971, the town of Durham, North Carolina, is still stuck in a mindset full of hate and segregation. When a local black school is burned down, the town holds an emergency meeting to determine whether or not the African American students will finish the year with the white students down the road. In an incomprehensible ruling, the mayor of Durham orders that the black students finish the school year in their half-destroyed, smoke engulfed school. In a last-ditch effort to overturn this decision, a man named Bill Riddick (Babou Ceesay), is called into town to hold a charrette. Surprisingly, Riddick nominates two polar opposites as co-chairs for the charrette, in an effort to bring the sides a bit closer together. C.P. Ellis (Sam Rockwell), the local chapter KKK President, and Ann Atwater (Taraji P. Henson), head of Operation Breakthrough, are forced to come together and lead a committee on the potential desegregation of Durham schools.
The dynamic between C.P. and Ann is fascinating; the chemistry between Rockwell and Henson relationship painstakingly materialize the relationship. There are moments of tension, rage, joy, and relief all packed into these impressive performances. Although the majority of the film revolves around the two protagonists, the supporting cast does a good job as well. Ceesay, who plays the level-headed mediator between Ellis and Atwater, incarnates Bill Riddick perfectly, showing a commitment to his cause even when things seem completely backwards.
Bissell does an adequate job at the helm of "Enemies" but fails to craft this subject matter into a true masterpiece. The pacing seems jagged, with some moments drawn out too long while others are not given enough attention, and some shouldn't even be in the movie. To his credit, Bissell is able to manufacture incredibly powerful scenes. It appears he recognized the potential of his two lead actors and gave them complete autonomy to deliver.
On the surface, The Best of Enemies is a film about desegregation. At its core, it is much more than that. It is proof that when people can put aside their differences and just talk, extraordinary change can happen. It is about friendship, love, and people. There are genuinely powerful moments sprinkled in to The Best of Enemies; these alone are worth the price of admission. A feel-good story that challenges its viewers, this film is a must-see slice of American history.