Yesterday, my wife and I watched a movie released last year called “The Best of Enemies.” It stars Taraji P. Henson and Sam Rockwell in true story about the debate over integrating schools in Durham, NC in 1971. Henson stars as Ann Atwater, an outspoken (self-described) African-American community organizer, while Rockwell stars as C.P. Ellis, the Durham chapter president of the KKK. They are asked to chair a two-week group meeting called a charrette to flesh out possible resolutions to the African-American school being partially destroyed by fire with lingering toxic fumes.
The movie is excellent and reveals the tensions, scheming, learning and fighting that went on. It also permits a deeper dive into the lives of the people in the middle of this fight. Realizing the similarity of all of us, empathy begins to emerge.
I will try not to spoil the movie. It is based on the best selling book “The Best of Enemies: Race and redemption in the New South” by Osha Gray Davidson. The film was written and directed by Robin Bissell, with co-writing credits to Davidson. It also stars Babou Ceesay as Bill Riddick, a mediator who plays a huge role in bringing the people together. Key roles are played by Ann Heche, the wife of Ellis, Bruce McGill, a closet supporter of the KKK as a councilman, and John Gallagher, Jr., a former Vietnam veteran who plays a pivotal role.
The movie did not receive rave reviews, but that may be due to its closeness to reality painting obvious bias and hatred into the plot. It is inspiring, troubling, and believable. I was in the middle of the integration of schools and remember it well. My schools integrated in 1971 and, to be frank, it went off reasonably well. It did not do so well in other communities or may be other schools. Yet, I think this relates to the leaders behind the effort in each community and school.
Let me know what you think. Give it a look. Rockwell and Henson are terrific actors and bring their passion to each project. Rockwell, in particular, plays complicated characters quite well. Also, do you remember integration efforts in the early 1970s?