The film “The Best of Enemies,” out April 5, portrays how real-life KKK leader C.P. Ellis was transformed and developed a budding friendship with Black activist Ann Atwater during a series of intense meetings over desegregating local schools. Ellis and Atwater’s surprising friendship, and the former’s public renunciation of the Klan, remains one for the history books. However, the two likely would have never overcome their differences had it not been for organizer Bill Riddick.
Although school integration was the law of the land in 1971, Durham, North Carolina, had yet to fully comply. N.C. Department of Health, Education and Welfare sent Riddick in to find a way to move the town forward on desegregating schools.
Riddick, known for organizing successful charrettes — meetings “in which all stakeholders in a project attempt to resolve conflicts and map solutions,” pulled one together for Durham residents to tackle desegregation. Ellis and Atwater were chosen as co-chairs of the charrette. As portrayed in the film “The Best of Enemies,” both Ellis and Atwater took some convincing before they agreed to go along with Riddick’s plan.
In this brief Q&A, Riddick explains why he felt it was necessary to have a local Klan member not only involved in the discussions, but helping lead the community meetings. He also mentions what he hopes viewers will take away from the film.
The transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.
What was it about Atwater and Ellis that convinced you they needed to lead the charrette?
Well each of them had a population, a people that they could count on. Obviously C.P. had the Klan. That was a large organization, lots of people that he could count on. Ann was a community organizer in Durham in [unintelligible] communities, so she had a group of people that she could count on. We created a steering committee to produce the charrette. It was actually the people in that steering committee who selected those two people.
You worked with Atwater and Ellis for just 10 days. Were you surprised at all by their eventual friendship?
I was shocked (laughs). I never thought that could happen, and it did, and I’m glad it did. But no, that that wasn’t part of my plan, in the sense of conducting the charrette.
Are there any memorable standout moments from those 10 days that really just stuck with you?
Yeah, about the third or fourth day I had a talk with each of them. Tthat talk was they needed to carry with them what the groups wanted and that you are here to represent a group of people who need a representative. I think that gave them the responsibility that they needed to go forward with how I was trying to run the charrette.
How would you respond to a Black viewer who would say, you know, “Why would we want to sit down with the Klan when they’re known for terrorizing our community? What are they actually bringing to the table?”
Well, I think part of our planning process must include the opposition. Obviously the Klan is true opposition as it relates to race and as it relates to, at that particular time, school desegregation. So in essence, then, if you don’t bring those two people to the table, you’re going to get a lot of people in the middle and nothing happens.
You met and were on set briefly with actor Babou Ceesay, who portrays you in “The Best of Enemies.” What was that like?
That was really good. I was allowed to look at how he was portraying me, and I had some issues with that. The producer, Bissell, asked me to take a walk with him. And I took a walk with him. We decided on some things and out of that, I think he did a magnificent job.
How do you think this film might impact today’s conversations about racism and white supremacy?
Well, you know, I don’t look at it as broadly as maybe you’re looking at it, I’m looking at an individual by individual. I hope that all of the folks who see this movie will take just a minute to look in the mirror at their own biases. And look how they can become better people. And if that happens, then obviously the movie would have accomplished the goal that I had set in my mind when Bissell talked about producing the screenplay.
Neither Atwater nor Ellis are alive. What do you think they would think about this movie if they had the opportunity to see it?
I think they would be overjoyed. I think both of the actors playing those roles were outstanding. They really studied the character and they did it very, very well. I think they’d be very pleased with it.