By David Josselyn
Astute Films, known for emotionally charged true, or based on true, stories recently released a movie based in the slow-moving town of Durham, North Carolina (less than three hours from Charlotte) in 1971 showcasing the showdown between Ku Klux Klan leader C.P. Ellis and civil rights activist Ann Atwater. This movie is based on a book by Osha Gray Davidson which is based on true events. After a fire guts the local blacks-only school making it mostly unusable, the search begins for another school, but the most obvious choice would force desegregation. In the early 70s, there was a fair amount of support for the idea, but not so much in Durham where the KKK was terrorizing black folk for entertainment and duty.
Ann Atwater, played by Taraji P. Hensen (“Hidden Figures,” “What Men Want”), attempts to convince the local school board to desegregate the local school, but is faced with severe opposition. Before Atwater’s short temper leads to regrettable actions, the North Carolina AFL-CIO nominated Atwater and her nemesis Ellis, played by Sam Rockwell (“Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Mississippi,” “Vice”), as co-chairs of a charette designed to decide the issue once and for all. Now Atwater and Ellis are forced to talk to each other, and more importantly, listen to each other, so they, and the rest of the charette board, could come to a two-thirds consensus to approve desegregation or remove the possibility from happening. As each side started to turn their backs on Atwater and Ellis for being “traitors,” the antagonists slowly found things to respect and admire about each other laying the groundwork for a friendship. “I used to think that Ann Atwater was the meanest black woman I’d ever seen in my life,” said Ellis, “but, you know, her and I got together one day for an hour or two and talked. And she is trying to help her people like I’m trying to help my people.” Will that friendship find common ground in the charette and could it survive the aftermath if they did?
Acting. Academy Award nominated actors Taraji P. Henson and Sam Rockwell play off each other very well and deliver great performances.
Story. This is a fascinating side of desegregation and racism not usually seen on the big screen. We are used to seeing the cultural clash after the decision is made, but seldom how the decision is made.
Editing. The challenge for a movie about a bureaucratic process is to keep it interesting and good editing plays an important role to keep the audience engaged, which this movie does.
Editing. There are some scenes as slow as 1971 Durham which could have been shorter. On first viewing, I was fully engaged in the story; however, future viewings would emphasize a few areas that could have been trimmed.
Exaggeration. A couple times the movie exaggerates the reality of events to the point of obvious fakery. Not an awful choice for the director, but it felt a bit Disney-fied (Astute Films is not a Disney entity).
Trailers. The trailers for the film implied a different story than the one that was made, making it seem that the story was about the desegregation conflicts after the students come together in the same building. I believe this plays into some of the negative reviews you may see online.
If you are like me, you might be as confused as the characters in the movie were about what a charette is. In 1970, congress passed a measure for an experimental program funded through grants for the sole purpose of helping with desegregation. Charette comes from a French word meaning ‘chariot.’ Students would work on projects to the very last second when a wheeled cart, or chariot, was pulled around collecting all the projects to be judged. It is like a brainstorming session, but all the ideas are then judged on their merits and a choice is made to move forward with the most popular idea or project. A modern charette allows opposing sides to break into smaller groups to formulate ideas, plans, etc. and come back to share with the combined group. The Durham charette was not popular among white conservatives and blacks were often the majority attending. The gospel singing happened at the real Durham charette and did play a part to influence Ellis.
“The Best of Enemies” is a fascinating look into the experimental charette and how it can affect views on desegregation. It also serves as a lesson that can be applied in most of the inflammatory issues of the twenty-first century as it seems neither side is listening to the other. The film is rated PG-13 for thematic material, racial epithets, some violence and a suggestive reference, but depending on your parenting style, this could be an excellent film for showing history, although it probably moves too slow for many children. My lovely daughter rates the film eight out of five stars (a two-thirds majority – get it?), and I rate the film five out of five stars.