If you’ve ever read one of the many, MANY New York Times profiles of Trump supporters and the “economic anxiety” that caused them to vote–and continue to support–a raging racist president of the United States and thought: I’d love to see this story on the big screen! You’re in luck.
The Best of Enemies is in theaters now. Taraji P. Henson is said to star as iconic North Carolina civil rights activist Ann Atwater, but as is typical in a white savior movie, the star with the most screen time is Sam Rockwell. Rockwell’s been on a streak lately, playing racists who eventually see the light (W. in Vice, notwithstanding). The latest racist he’s embodying is the former Durham, North Carolina chapter president of the Ku Klux Klan, C.P. Ellis.
When desegregating Durham’s schools becomes a possibility open for debate in 1971, Atwater and Ellis form an unlikely friendship after they are forced to work together for 10 days in order to represent their divergent communities–you know, Black people who want to live a decent life, and on the other hand, the Klan.
Because this country, and Hollywood most of all, has learned nothing from the 2016 election, Best of Enemies will juxtapose these two people–and by extension, their communities–as simply two extremes who learn to see each other’s points of view and meet each other halfway. The rules for choosing the voting members who will participate on the debate teams are that Ann and Ellis can’t choose for the teams they are leading any “Black Power” people like her, nor any Klansmen like Ellis.
There’s also scenes of Atwater discussing her hatred for Ellis and being chastised and shamed for it, as if to suggest that their hatred were equal. For years, every time Atwater would go to public city council meetings to get problems fixed for struggling, poor Black people, Ellis would be there with the Klan to shut them down. During the 1971 debate, Ellis introduced apartheid-level ideas for how Black people should be treated in Durham and Atwater pulled out a knife. Ellis brought out a machine gun.
While Atwater hated white supremacy and its agents for preventing her, her children and her community from having access to basic resources, Ellis’ motivations, as he told the Herald-Sun in 1999, were simply: “When I joined the Klan, I thought every Black person in the country was evil and dirty. I just assumed it.” But sure, let’s paint them as “equally hateful.”
Voiceover from the real Ellis opens the film as he recounts the night he was inducted into the American terrorist organization. Ellis expresses how he cried real tears that night. It’s a benchmark so you can see how far he’s come! by the end of the film. After such an introduction, if you expected to watch anything other than a Klansman redemption story, well, that’s on you.
Rockwell’s opening scenes as Ellis include him rallying his Klansmen to lie in wait for a young white woman to come home from work. When she arrives, they get their machine guns, but express confusion as to why they’re about to attack this young white woman. Ellis assures them that she’s dating a Black man. Now it makes sense! They shoot up her house while she crawls along the floor, trying to survive the attack.
But don’t worry, there’s much more to Ellis than just a racist terrorist. Best of Enemies will make sure you know every ounce of his human soul before the two hour-and-13-minute runtime expires. For starters, what could make a good ole American boy turn to terrorism? Nothing but that pesky devil “economic anxiety,” of course.
Ellis is just a Bible-believing, God-fearing man who works hard at his gas station, but still can’t make ends meet for his wife and children. In the tender moments of him alone with his adoring wife, we see him as a loving husband. With his disabled son who lives in a costly healthcare facility, we see him as a desperate father railing against an unfair system. From the racist local politicians to the poor white racists on the street–all of racist white North Carolina sees Ellis as a respected community leader. He’s got depth.
Henson’s Ann Atwater, on the other hand, has basically one speed throughout the majority of her screen time–most of which is shared with Rockwell. She’s the righteously angry activist, fighting for her community’s basic needs–clean, hot water, inhabitable living spaces and sufficient schools and resources for Black children.
Her remarkable first scene where she unplugs a local politician’s landline phone because he’s ignoring her and then hits him over the head with the receiver is actually true, according to Atwater herself in the (free and much better use of your time) PBS documentary An Unlikely Friendship.
The rare time that she’s not in fight mode is with her daughters, after a fire at their school makes the school building uninhabitable. It’s a fleeting moment. Her big moment of joy, while singing gospel with a choir after one of the debate sessions, is interrupted when Ellis enters the room, and her righteous anger returns. It becomes immediately clear that the gospel music scene only exists to show how Ellis is impacted by the beautiful music. Maybe he’s coming around to Black people being human beings and not the cause of his problems! Oh happy day.
The one scene where Ann surprises an old friend at work is not for the purposes of deepening Ann’s character by showing her close relationships; it’s to show how she was able to convince a nurse at the mental health institution to help out Ellis’ son, the grand gesture that causes a major turning point in her relationship with Ellis.
The only scene where Ann’s defenses are totally down is when she’s preparing to lose the vote to desegregate the schools. She’s not with any close friends, not with fellow activists, not with any romantic love interest, not with a pastor or her church group–she’s alone. For the majority of her breakdown, her back is to the camera, as it circles her for dramatic effect. But the true effect is to limit screen time for Ann’s humanity, while giant chunks of the film are devoted to humanizing a Klansman. (There’s even a Van Jones/Cory Booker mash-up character who calls the Klansman his “brother.”)
Ellis must be humanized, the audience must care about his journey and his hardships, otherwise, when he stands at the podium on the final night of the debate, rips up his Klan membership card and saves the day by making the deciding vote to desegregate the schools, it has no heartwarming effect.
Filmmaker Robin Bissell even draws in Ellis’ wife to make sure this point hits home. In a scene that couldn’t even try to pass the Bechdel Test, Ellis’ wife stops by Atwater’s home to thank her for helping her son get a single room where he’s safer in the mental health institution. While she wants and has no parts in the Klan, she is not disgusted enough with her husband’s participation, let alone leadership, to actually leave him.
Instead, she uses her time with Atwater to advocate for her husband’s “goodness.” “Claiborne’s doing his best,” she says to Atwater, but it’s for the audience’s benefit. This poor white terrorist just doesn’t know any better.
The ceiling for a white racist terrorist is beneath the floor.
The audience suffers three insults as a result: not only must we sit through a debate on whether Black children deserve access to resources as if it is a valid question, we also have to watch as white women are portrayed as innocent bystanders in white supremacy, when their participation in and benefits from racist institutions are well documented. Most egregious, we must watch as screen time is devoted to rehabbing the president of the Klan, and I’m as tired as the wig on Taraji’s head.
(Seriously, that unfortunate hair hat and that droopy, padded bra she stole from Madea make her look even less like Ann Atwater than if she’d made no changes to her appearance at all, so what was the point, costume designer J.R. Hawbaker and head hair dresser Andrea C. Brotherton?)
The counterargument is that, unlike Green Book, most of these events portrayed in the film are not in dispute. Ellis really did dramatically rip up his Klan membership card and denounce the Klan to their faces and in front of thousands of Durham residents and local leaders. He did actually save the day when it came to desegregating the schools in that moment. But there are millions of true stories that go untold on the big screen every day. Why and how and whose stories get told are always the more interesting questions.
When Shadow And Act correspondent Deenie Matthews asked Henson about the lack of three dimensionality in Ann’s story in the film, Henson had this to say:
“I think our purpose for the movie is to really reflect the times and what’s going on now. And that’s why the activism was more important than her personal life. We put some in there to show her and him [Ellis] and how they were very equal as far as how much they cared for their family. But the story and the impact of the story is how she got this man who was very different…polar opposites, to change his heart. And I think that’s more important,” Henson said.
“The act that she did to get a man that was Ku Klux Klan, the president of that chapter, to change his hateful heart to love, that’s a more important story to me. I mean, I love Ann and I’m sure her private life was very important, but we’ve only got two hours to tell the story. So, if someone else would like to write another story about her and her life, do it!”
A “more important story” for whom?
What Best of Enemies doesn’t show is that Atwater was forced to marry at 14 years old. A domestic violence survivor, she had two children by her abusive husband before she was able to divorce him, though she struggled financially as she raised her daughters on her own. Perhaps it was surviving abuse both inside her home and community, let alone outside of it, that made her a rare, fearless and passionate advocate for Black women and children for the rest of her life.
“Having the Lord in my life, I think that gave me the strength, the courage to keep on, and it taught me how to be able to love,” Atwater says in the PBS documentary, which gives more insight into her motivations in its 26-minute runtime than the entire two hours of this movie.
But who needs to know why she did what she did? Who needs to see the fullness of Ann Atwater’s story when “a more important story” is how she went out of her way to help the president of the Klan and he decided to stop hating Black people as a result?
Why is C.P. Ellis’ transformation so special and important that it trumps everything that this Black woman activist did her whole life? Sure, Ellis went on to organize a labor union that included Black people in it and went on a speaking tour with Atwater discussing racial reconciliation, but is that enough to garner this kind of glorification?
Sure, the Klan youth indoctrination program he created and led fell apart once he left the organization, but did he make any efforts to reverse the hate he instilled in those boys for years? Certainly they grew up not just with hateful ideology but hateful actions, which was the entire point of the terrorist organization. Was he ever held or did he ever hold himself accountable for all of the crimes, all of the terrorism he committed during his years-long membership in the Klan and his reign as their leader?
During the 10-day “debate” alone, he brought a machine gun to intimidate Ann and the other Black people and white detractors who were there. He hung up a Klansman’s hood and recruitment pamphlets to terrorize Black residents who came to the debate. Not in the film or in the PBS documentary did he even apologize for that terrorism, let alone get held accountable for any of it.
Did he go on a speaking tour targeting members of the Klan to get them to see how if he changed than they can too? Did he actually disband the Ku Klux Klan after he denounced them in 1971? According to the SPLC, three different varieties of Klan organizations are active statewide in North Carolina to this day. So what exactly is so significant about this man’s “changed heart” that we’re supposed to feel so good about here?
According to his obituary in the LA Times, he was named one of the “heroes of the day” by the Los Angeles Book Review in 1997. “The Klan really done something for me, gave me some standing and made me feel better, but every time they talk about the Klan they talk about hating niggers. I don’t feel like that about Black folk now. It just aint there,” he said in the PBS documentary. What a hero!
Relief that this man stopped terrorizing the community and gratitude to Ann are reasonable reactions. But to give ally cookies to a former Klan president because he no longer believes Black people are “evil and dirty” is breathtaking. To reduce Ann’s story to her friendship with this man as “a more important story,” is even more so.
But, it’s not uncommon. Kareem Abdul-Jabar made similar comments in The Hollywood Reporter in defense of the White Savior Film du Jour Green Book and the choice to prioritize the racist white chauffeur Tony’s version of events over the story of the Black classical pianist Dr. Donald Shirley who invented his own genre of music and lived above Carnegie Hall. “The film is much more effective from Tony’s point of view because the audience that might be most changed by watching it is the white audience,” Abdul-Jabar wrote.
Because that’s what matters in all of these Hollywood “race relations” movies–the white audience. The white audience has to feel good about themselves when it’s all over–either because of “how far we’ve come!” as a nation, or how great they are for never enslaving people or being a Klan member themselves.
The message of Best of Enemies isn’t that “love conquers all!” It’s that Black people should continue to jeopardize their own safety, peace and well-being by coddling and befriending violently racist white people for the mere chance to “change their hearts and minds.”
The message is that if you’re a Black person who’s not willing to do what Ann did, then you’re just as hateful as the people who have systemic power over you and your life.
The message is that Black stories and Black lives only matter as much as they can be sacrificed in service of a narrative or a lesson for the benefit of white people. The white hoods might be tucked away, but it’s the same white supremacy all over again.
And that’s the worst of all.
Brooke Obie is the managing editor of Shadow And Act.