Run time: 2 hours 13 minutes
Stars: Taraji P. Henson, Sam Rockwell, Babou Ceesay, Anne Heche
Director: Robin Bissell
Not to be confused with Oscar winner Morgan Neville’s great 2015 documentary Best of Enemies (about William Buckley’s fights with Gore Vidal), this heartwarming film tells a true story that’s like Green Book or BlacKkKlansman, only even stranger. Like Green Book, it’s about an unlikely black-white friendship, and like BlacKkKlansman, it’s about a real-life confrontation with the Ku Klux Klan.
The improbable friends started out as implacable enemies. C.P. Ellis (played by Sam Rockwell, 50) was the Exalted Grand Cyclops of the Klan in Durham, N.C., and Ann Atwater (Taraji P. Henson, 48) a sharecropper’s daughter and single welfare mom in a home with no electricity who found her calling as an extraordinarily electrifying activist. Both were hotheads whose rhetoric rallied their political groups, and Atwater once got so angry with Ellis and his racist tirades at a public event that she pulled a knife from her purse and considered cutting his throat. Her pastor dissuaded her, saying, “Don’t give them the satisfaction.”
In 1971, a crisis brought Ellis and Atwater together. Durham was slow to fully desegregate its schools after the Supreme Court required it, and when a fire closed its big school for black children, Atwater’s faction demanded that black students be permitted to finish up the school year at the white kids’ school. Labor organizer Bill Riddick (Babou Ceesay) came from Raleigh to stage a meeting to settle the question — and shocked Ellis and Atwater by appointing them to represent their feuding communities at a 10-day event called a charrette. The vote at the charrette would decide the issue.
Nobody got their throat cut and the two became best of friends. (He died in 2005, of Alzheimer’s, she in 2016; one newspaper headlined her obituary, “Still Hollering, Down to Her Last Breath”). We know this before the film starts, thanks to the book this film adapts (Osha Gray Davidson’s The Best of Enemies: Race and Redemption in the New South) and Diane Bloom’s 2002 documentary An Unlikely Friendship, seen on PBS. So it’s tricky for the film to sustain suspense in terms of what’s going to happen.
But writer-director Robin Bissell (producer of The Hunger Games and Seabiscuit) excels at creating tension through fantastic acting. Henson’s famous circumflex eyebrows have never been more dramatically angry, not even on her hit Empire or in her Oscar-nominated historical drama Hidden Figures, where she played a tough NASA mathematician. She physically transformed herself into the plus-size Atwater with help from Tyler Perry and the bosom prosthetics he uses to become his hit movie character Madea. Henson conveys the way Atwater's sheer will overcame her physical difficulties (obesity and diabetes) and made her unstoppable.
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Rockwell won a 2018 Oscar playing a somewhat similar small-town character in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, and nobody could be more convincing as an Exalted Grand Cyclops who loses his political faith and decides that poor people ought to stick together, color be damned. Anne Heche, who turns 50 in May, is terrific as C.P.’s independent-minded wife. As C.P.’s fellow Klansman disillusioned with him, Wes Bentley makes good use of his scary blue eyes, and when his men burn crosses and break into homes to intimidate witnesses, we feel the heat.
The friendship of Atwater and C.P. and what they accomplished sounds too pat to be real. But it plays as real, and if you want a film with a satisfyingly happy ending, this one is for you.