The highest praise I can offer The Best of Enemies is at least it isn’t as bad as Green Book. Whereas the maligned Best Picture winner is an antiquated bugbear of white saviorism designed to explicitly call back to a time in filmmaking when popular culture was desperately trying to pretend we were past racial animus, The Best of Enemies wants to present a historical portrait of small-town racial tension with something purporting to be a racially balanced perspective. However, what the film also does is try to frame that animosity as a battle of wills between equal and opposite forces of Black radicalism and white supremacism, and almost inevitably the desire to show the underlying humanity of its Klan leader protagonist tips the film over into full-on sympathy for the devil. Whoops.
In 1971 Durham, North Carolina, two opposing communities exist, personified by Ann Atwater (Taraji P. Henson, trying her best with a surprisingly thin role) for Black community activists, and C.P. Ellis (Sam Rockwell, continuing his disturbing trend of lending charm to unsympathetic villains), the president of the town’s chapter of the Ku Klux Klan. After the town’s unintegrated Black school catches fire, leaving the town with insufficient facilities to educate its Black youth, the nakedly biased city council declines to integrate facilities. This prompts the state judiciary to order a charrette, a sort of special community council to decide and vote upon the issue of school integration, and the moderator of the charrette (Babou Ceesay) selects Atwater and Ellis to act as the co-chairs for the voting body.
The title and marketing would lead one to believe that The Best of Enemies is about a blossoming friendship between two people with every reason to hate one another, but that’s not really how the film frames Atwater’s and Ellis’ antagonism. Instead, the film focuses a wildly disproportionate amount of attention on Ellis' redemptive arc, showing that, yes, he is a racist and all-around nasty guy, but he’s also a victim of economic anxieties, is manipulated by wealthier white supremacists on the city council, and has a mentally disabled son that he struggles to afford care for. The film seems to recognize that if we’re supposed to root for this guy to change, we need reasons to like him, so it devotes nearly all of its energy to establishing his likeability despite the glaring racist fault that makes for his central character arc, consequentially turning a supposed co-lead into the film’s sole empathetic center of gravity.
This is also likely a by-product of the film’s careful avoidance of making it seem like Atwater needs to concede any sort of moral ground to Ellis, which is certainly the right call from a thematic standpoint, but it does little to solve the problem of what Atwater gets to do with her screen time. We receive very little sense of Atwater’s home or personal life while Ellis’ is completely on display, and the closest she gets to a character arc is some lip service to her tendency to talk emphatically rather than listen, a point that never really resolves and never really needs to. Instead, Atwater exists primarily as a catalyst for Ellis’ growth, eventually showing him the same community-oriented kindness she has shown to the Black community so that Ellis can recognize their shared humanity. I’m sympathetic to the storytelling paradox of needing to provide more substance to an ostensible protagonist whose place in history was to be an example for another to learn from, but the troubling side effect here is that Atwater remains frustratingly static while Ellis is elevated by the film for exemplifying the most basic of human decency.
Much like the aforementioned Green Book, the cinematography, editing, dialogue, performances, and direction are serviceable across the board, presenting digestible pablum that will surely entertain some and reaffirm the shallow progressivism of others. But it’s also the year 2019, and this is a major motion picture that frames a KKK president as a sympathetic figure worthy of redemption without ever really having to answer for his previous ethical failings. Based on true events as this may be, the way in which those events are framed and presented still matters, and this comes dangerously close to saying that it is the responsibility of victims of institutional bigotry and violence to use kindness as their primary and possibly sole means of defense and social change. The only thing keeping The Best of Enemies from crossing that line is that it can’t figure out how to get its Black mouthpiece to say so without being blatant about its racially skewed perspective.