Bill Riddick builds for a living.
He doesn’t hammer together houses or pave roads. You could say he makes bridges, but of a more metaphorical sort. Riddick travels across the country to build understanding and, hopefully, consensus.
Say, for instance, a developer wants to build a shopping center in a neighborhood, but the neighbors don’t want it. The community brings in Riddick to lead what he calls a charrette—a series of meetings with the community’s biggest stakeholders. Often these stakeholders often don’t trust each other much.
Sometimes they’d rather spit in each other’s faces as shake their hands. But through patience and conversation and sometimes painful give and take, Riddick guides them through the process where votes are taken, decisions are made and shopping centers are built. Or not. Sure, the process can be messy. But it works.
Or, at least, it used to work. But now Riddick faces a challenge unlike any other.
It’s 1971, and the issue of civil rights has faded from the front pages. But in communities like Durham, North Carolina, segregation and racism are still alive and all too well. When a black citizen speaks at a city council meeting, one councilman turns his back—as if the speaker is beneath his notice. Groups campaign to protect white privilege at every turn. Blacks and whites go to different restaurants, stores and gas stations. Desegregated schools? Don’t make 1971 Durham laugh.
But when a fire devastates the city’s black elementary school, the city’s faced with a potentially explosive question: Where should we send these black boys and girls to school?
The natural solution: Send them where the white kids go. Integrate. Legally, that’s what they should’ve done already, as the American Civil Liberties Union insisted in a recent lawsuit. But many of city’s white citizens have four words for the ACLU: Over our dead bodies.
C.P. Ellis, head of the city’s branch of the Ku Klux Klan, is the first to raise his fist. He cried tears of joy when he got his KKK card, and he considers its members to be family. He leads the charge against “communists, n—ers and Jews” in town. He doesn’t serve blacks at his gas station, and he sure as shootin’ (perhaps literally) isn’t going to allow any colored kids sitting next to his in school.
Many a Durham voice rises against C.P. and his ilk, but none is louder or angrier than that of Ann Atwater. They call her “Roughhouse Annie,” and for reason: Leader of the activist group Operation Breakthrough, she bangs through obstacles like a belligerent bowling ball, bruising friend and foe on her way.
Riddick knows that for his charrette to work, he needs to have these two forces on board. No, he needs them leading the thing: Co-chairs of Durham’s great school integration charrette.
C.P.’s instinct is to turn Riddick down cold. I mean, he didn’t even shake hands with the guy, and now he’s supposed to work with him? But C.P.’s racist friends encourage him to sign up: With C.P. as part of the process, there’s no way integration will happen. And so he relents.
“I wouldn’t want your type taking over this, what do you call it, charade?” he tells Bill and Ann with a sneer.
That’s it for Ann. “I’m not gonna work with that cracker, so you gonna have to find someone else!” she blusters at Bill.
Bill Riddick builds for a living. He builds consensus, understanding, sometimes even a sense of unity. But in Durham, his vaunted charrette doesn’t look like a tool for building unity.
It looks like it just might burn the whole city down.
I don’t think I’m spoiling anything here that the title itself doesn’t hint at, but Ann and C.P. wind up bonding more than you’d expect given their rocky beginnings. And it begins with their children.
C.P. gets involved with the charrette, in part, over concerns about his own kids. C.P. never had much education, and he wants his own children to have opportunities he never did. As they underperform at school, he worries that the distraction of new colored students might negatively impact his own children’s schooling. And one of his sons also has some severe disabilities—so much so that he’s been institutionalized.
Ann, who has her own struggling children to deal with, sees a hint of commonality with C.P. When an opportunity comes along to help C.P.’s disabled son, she takes it. The move seems to infuriate C.P. But his wife, Mary, appreciates what Ann did so much that she (scandalously) stops by Ann’s place for a visit. And as time goes on, C.P. and Ann begin to see each other differently than they had before, a grudging respect developing in both.
Neither Ann nor C.P. come across as one-note characters. In the nuanced hands of actor Sam Rockwell, C.P.’s initial allegiance to the KKK eventually gives way deeper convictions about his need to serve others—even those he’d once hated.
Meanwhile, Ann prevents a group of black men from vandalizing C.P.’s KKK display (which he insisted upon setting up in the building where the charrette was taking place). Her motivation seems two-fold: She suggests that the men are losing an important opportunity to understand their enemy better. But she also understands that the charrette is about respect: She feels the display has no place in the building, but since it’s there, she’s bound to respect it. And when C.P. sees Ann straightening the KKK hood in the display (much to her own disgust), he finds new respect her.
Throughout the film, we hear characters eloquently explain why racism is so awful and, in that day, inescapable. And both black and white characters stand up for racial equality.
Both C.P. and Ann are pretty religious. During a Klan meeting, C.P. leads the group in prayer, asking that he and his men would be “unfettered from the world and fight the good fight.” After a contentious charrette meeting, Ann confronts C.P., waving her Bible in his face. “This here does the talking for me,” she says. When C.P. tells her that he has a Bible, and he even reads it, Ann says that he should know what it says, then.
“Same God who made you made me,” she tells him.
A black minister, noting how vitriolic the charrette meetings can be, suggests ending them on an optimistic note—specifically by singing gospel music. When C.P. insists that “gospel music is for black folk,” Ann snaps back. “It’s not about black or white,” she says. “It’s about God!” C.P.’s unmoved, though, and the issue allows him (in the give-and-take ethos of the charrette) to force in his KKK display. After a later charrette meeting, a dispirited C.P. trudges toward the sound of music and peers in. He sees Ann joyfully singing her praises to the Almighty, and the two of them exchange an enigmatic look.
Ann prays over lunch, and she wears a cross around her neck. We see sunlight stream through a church steeple.
Someone speculates, jokingly, about the size of someone’s penis. C.P. and wife Mary cuddle in bed a bit. We hear that Ann has been a “single mother since I was 16.”
C.P. and a couple of his buddies head out to the house of a woman whom they hear is dating a black man. They stand outside as the camera itself ventures in: We see the woman (alone) strip down to her underwear in preparation to go to bed. And then, outside …
… C.P. and his friends open fire on the house, sending lead crashing through the windows and doors. C.P. wanted to scare the woman, not hurt her: He made his pals wait until a light turned on upstairs, then fired their guns downstairs, doing a great deal of damage.
Several scenes involving KKK members take place on a firing range: As the local chapter’s leader, C.P. seems to be preparing for a potential race war—encouraging members to practice often, and requiring it of its small clutch of teenage members.
In an effort to intimidate a female voting member of the charrette, a couple of KKK lackeys (one of whom holds a baseball bat) break into her house and wait for her to come home. One confronts her and, essentially, sexually assaults her: He pushes her up against a wall and apparently (his hand is off camera) pushes his hand into her crotch—demanding that she say, and repeat, that she’s “not a friend of n—ers.”
A fire breaks out in school, scaring students and teachers but harming no one. (Some speculate that the KKK was involved, but it was apparently just an electrical fire.) C.P.’s disabled son thrashes and screams and kicks books. Someone sets one of C.P.’s gas station pumps on fire. C.P. extinguishes it before it blows up, but he’s later told that it burned off about 650 gallons.
Ann smacks a city leader with a phone receiver.
We hear two s-words. Other profanities include “a–,” “d–n” and “h—.”
But the biggest language issue here by far, though is how characters sling racial slurs uttered, including nearly 20 uses of “n—er.” (“Cracker” is used as a disparaging epithet for white people quite a few times, too.)
God’s name is misused twice, once with the word “d–n.” Jesus’ name is abused twice.
Several people smoke, and C.P. chews tobacco. People chat at bars and talk over beer. C.P. offers someone a bottle of beer as an ice-breaker.
Obviously, viewers are exposed to lots of disparaging racial attitudes. The movie doesn’t ask us to praise or excuse them, but they’re present nonetheless. Durham’s white power structure puts a lot of untoward pressure on folks in an effort to squelch the move toward integration.
The Best of Enemies is based on the true story of the unlikely friendship between C.P. Ellis and Ann Atwater, and how it came to be. The two became so close that when the real C.P. Ellis died in 2005, Ann Atwater delivered his eulogy.
I had a chance to talk with the real charrette organizer Bill Riddick recently, and he said the movie is quite accurate—and he says he was ready to quit the gig his first day in Durham.
“The first day was crazy, man,” he said. “The issues that came up were just bad.”
But he and the folks participating in the charrette persevered. Certainly, that one 10-day event didn’t cure racism in Durham. But it does offer, I think, a hint of how we can and should address racism. Indeed, it points the way forward through lots of different issues. We move forward when we can sit down with someone and look past all the ideologies and issues they represent to see the person behind them. It’s frighteningly easy to hate a group of people who are different. It’s harder to hate a person once you understand what makes that person tick.
The Best of Enemies, fronted by Oscar winner Sam Rockwell and Oscar nominee Taraji P. Henson, is a well-acted, winsome, and effective story about race and reconciliation—one that may challenge us to, as Riddick told me, “Look in the mirror at our [own biases], to try and be a better person.” Moreover, it suggests—strongly—that faith can be a catalyst for becoming that better person, and that’s something you don’t see in many movies these days.
The Best of Enemies is not without fault itself. The dialogue is inflected with profanity, and the film contains lots of scenes that could make viewers uncomfortable. They’re always purposeful, but that won’t necessarily assuage discerning, sensitive film viewers.
But keeping those issues in mind, The Best of Enemies works. Moreover, it shows how we can work together—even in the face of issues trying to force us apart.
Paul Asay has been part of the Plugged In staff since 2007, watching and reviewing roughly 15 quintillion movies and television shows. He’s written for a number of other publications, too, including Time, The Washington Post and Christianity Today. The author of several books, Paul loves to find spirituality in unexpected places, including popular entertainment, and he loves all things superhero. His vices include James Bond films, Mountain Dew and terrible B-grade movies. He’s married, has two children and a neurotic dog, runs marathons on occasion and hopes to someday own his own tuxedo. Feel free to follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.