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The Best of Enemies

Movie review by
Sandie Angulo Chen, Common Sense Media
The Best of Enemies Movie Poster Image
Well-intentioned but one-sided race drama has iffy messages.
  • PG-13
  • 2019
  • 133 minutes

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A lot or a little?

The parents' guide to what's in this movie.

Positive Messages

Movie explores social ills of racial segregation, white supremacy, institutional discrimination. Encourages people to look beyond prejudice and see people as individuals. Like many movies about segregation, it promotes the way individual connection and friendship can break down barriers, discrimination, racism. Empathy and communication are prominent themes. But movie also makes it seem like burden of combating racism is on victims of it, instead of on perpetrators.

Positive Role Models & Representations

Ann Atwater is a fierce civil rights activist who isn't afraid to be loud, uncompromising. She's compassionate toward C.P. Ellis, even though he's a Klansman. Mary Ellis proves that not all relatives of racists are racists themselves. C.P.'s story shows that people are capable of redemption. But in terms of screen time, the representation of C.P.'s humanity far outweighs Ann's story.

Violence

KKK members shoot at a young white woman's house -- not necessarily with intent to kill, but to destroy property and frighten her -- because she's rumored to have a black boyfriend. KKK teaches members (including youth corps) to shoot guns at a range. Two Klansmen intimidate a white woman by breaking into her house, threatening her with sexual violence. (A man's hands aren't visible, but it's clear he's touching her inappropriately and making her promise to do as he instructs.)

Sex

A wife rejects her husband's advances in bed (he tries to caress and kiss her).

Language

The "N" word is said many times, usually matter-of-factly and other times in a pejorative manner. Language also includes "s--t," "ass," "pecker," "weirdos," "retards," "goddamn," "commies," "hell," "shut your hole."

Consumerism

Ford, Coca-Cola, Tropicana, Budweiser.

Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

Several scenes take place in a KKK bar where men drink beer.

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that The Best of Enemies is a drama based on the true story of the unlikely early 1970s friendship between a racist Klansman and a black civil rights activist. Although Taraji P. Henson is given top billing as Ann Atwater, her character isn't as deeply explored as that of KKK chapter president C.P. Ellis (Sam Rockwell). Most of the movie's messages are educational (institutional racism and segregation caused severe harm to America's black citizens) and positive (individual friendship can lead to breaking down prejudice). But there are also unsettling themes and takeaways -- e.g., suggesting that the burden of combating racism is on those who are the victims, instead of on the perpetrators. Violent scenes include Klansmen shooting up a woman's house, threatening and intimidating people, and hurting a woman in a way that suggests sexual assault (the man's hands aren't visible). The "N" word is used dozens of times, there's some drinking, and a man makes the KKK sound like a positive, welcoming (to white men) brotherhood.

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What's the story?

Based on real-life events, THE BEST OF ENEMIES takes place in 1971 Durham, North Carolina, when schools were still segregated. After a fire makes the town's mostly black school partially uninhabitable, the all-white city council votes against integration. So parents, led by outspoken fair-housing activist Ann Atwater (Taraji P. Henson), file a lawsuit (via the NAACP) demanding full integration. The state attorney's office decides to implement a 10-day charrette (mediated sessions including community members on all sides), led by African American facilitator Bill Riddick (Babou Ceesay). After 10 days, whatever resolutions the charrette's 12-person senate votes upon will be enacted. Bill invites Ann to co-chair the charrette with C.P. Ellis (Sam Rockwell), the president of the local KKK chapter. As the nightly meetings progress, C.P. and Ann reluctantly begin to get to know each other.

Is it any good?

This unlikely friendship story would have been better off as a documentary. There's no doubt that the "true story" nature of Atwater and Ellis' friendship is compelling, and the few minutes at the very end featuring footage of the late Ann and C.P. will make audiences wish they could hear more from the pair's families about not only the 10 days that led to their friendship but also the years that followed. But in telling the story of The Best of Enemies, the filmmakers made the head-scratching decision to focus more on developing Klansman Ellis' humanity than to treat both characters as equals -- which is hard to justify. Instead of feeling like a movie about both of these people, the movie concentrates on making sure audiences somehow feel sympathetic with the card-carrying KKK president. Meanwhile, Henson's outspoken Ann is reduced to being the catalyst for C.P.'s "I don't hate all black people" epiphany.

It's not that Ann doesn't get some inspiring speeches, but the amount of time devoted to her family life is limited compared to C.P.'s time -- so much so that one of the longest scenes in Ann's house is shared with C.P.'s wife, Mary (Anne Heche), who seems to tolerate her husband's Klan activities but isn't overtly racist (aside from being married to the local Exalted Cyclops of the KKK). Ceesay also gives a noteworthy performance as the mediator in charge of the community charrette, and Wes Bentley is chilling as C.P.'s friend and deputy. The problem here isn't the actors, who are notable, but the film's inadequacy in capturing more than one side of a real-life friendship.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about whether any of the characters in The Best of Enemies are role models. How are empathy and communication portrayed in the movie? Why are those important character strengths?

  • How does the movie address and handle the topics of race and segregation? What about class?

  • Why do you think the movie focuses more on C.P.'s life than on Ann's? Is this problematic? Why?

  • How have things changed when it comes to race relations since 1971? Why is it important for people to know about the history of segregation?

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