Film Gives Shallow Treatment to Ann Atwater, CP Ellis Story
“The Best of Enemies,” starring Sam Rockwell and Taraji P. Henson, falls short in its telling of how a Christian activist compelled a KKK leader to change his mind on white supremacy. The film, out April 5, has its high points, but the story’s execution is not one of them.
“The Best of Enemies” is based on the unlikely friendship that developed between the late activist Ann Atwater (Henson) and deceased Ku Klux Klan leader C.P. Ellis (Rockwell) in Durham, North Carolina, amid several community meetings over desegregating schools in the summer of 1971. The man that brought them together, Bill Riddick (Babou Ceesay), told Faithfully Magazine he was “shocked” by their eventual friendship. The movie was inspired by the book of the same title written by Osha Gray Davidson and published in 1996 .
Although her physical presentation is a little ridiculous (the real Atwater was heavyset and top-heavy), Henson does a fair job of portraying a “southern, sassy, no-nonsense Black woman.” Unfortunately, there are no breakout moments in “The Best of Enemies,” but also no particularly weak moments for the actors either. Everyone carries their roles relatively well.
There is also one notable scene in the beginning of the film that shows how the Klan essentially was (and still is in some cases) a “Christian” organization. The scene of Ellis leading a prayer at the close of a Klan meeting is shocking, as it sounds like almost any church prayer — except for the part about Whites being an “endangered species.” This scene should give viewers pause, as it does hint at current white nationalist (and maybe even Christian nationalist) fears at the shifting U.S. population.
When the first trailer emerged several months ago for the film, some Black viewers rolled their eyes, figuring “The Best of Enemies” was just another whitewashed account of a powerful Black woman’s story. As this year’s Oscar winner for Best Picture (“Green Book”) affirmed for some critics, Hollywood has an affinity for telling white savior stories that overshadow or omit the self-agency of Black characters (“The Help” and “Hidden Figures,” for example). “The Best of Enemies” does, unfortunately, hit “White savior” territory in its attempt to remind viewers that klansmen are people, too.
Contrary to what promoters suggested — that “The Best of Enemies” is about both Ellis and Atwater, the movie is actually about Ellis. That’s not a bad thing, of course, as the real-life Ellis’ conversion is compelling. The problem is that Henson’s Atwater is only a background character in this story — yet the real-life Ellis suggested that working with Atwater was a profoundly significant turning point in his life. Atwater was the catalyst for his deliverance and Ellis has said that by partnering with her, he began to love her.
“The Best of Enemies” writer and director Robin Bissell was either unable or reluctant to convincingly present the motivations and depth of Ellis’s change of heart.
What follows are a few points on why “The Best of Enemies” is problematic in general, and why the portrayal of Ellis’ transition was unconvincing.
History has established the KKK as a virulently anti-Black terrorist organization and hate group and “The Best of Enemies” is set in 1971, within 10 years of the Klan bombing and burning of several Black churches and schools across the south. Ellis is a leader, the Exalted Cyclops, of his Durham, North Carolina, chapter of the Klan and uses violence even against other Whites who don’t tow the line on Black-White relations. Yet, Ellis is taken aback that when he met Atwater’s teen daughter, she “looked at him like he was some kind of monster.”
There is also a bizarre scene of Atwater and Mary Ellis (Anne Heche) sitting at the former’s kitchen table sipping drinks and laughing about how the latter’s husband has “always been” — which at this point in the film is an arrogant, racist jerk and leader of the local Klan. Mary Ellis tells Atwater, without any shame, that her husband “is doing the best he can.” What should have been an awkward encounter for a Black woman and the wife of an unapologetic klansman in the Black woman’s home instead translates as a rather glib attempt to stir pity for a wholly unsympathetic character.
The apparent defining moment in Ellis’s transition seems to be when Atwater confronts Ellis in front of Riddick and says he’s “a bigger coward than I thought you was.” Of course, this is just a guess, as Rockwell only leaves us with another one of his pensive and quizzical looks. We know for sure, however, when the climax comes that Ellis has change his mind — he tells us. He disappoints his fellow klansmen and white council members and shocks Black residents by ripping up his Klan card and voting for school integration.
After his surprising remarks, a viewer is left wondering when exactly Ellis stopped believing that Blacks are inferior, or if he ever truly believed it.
One also has to ask who “The Best of Enemies” was written for. The answer comes when you consider the apparent hero of the film and that it’s the screenwriter’s job to make viewers sympathize with the hero.
The real C.P. Ellis’s journey out of the Klan and away from a racist mindset is rather interesting, and his resulting work over the remainder of his life is admirable. However, the C.P. Ellis we are given in “The Best of Enemies” doesn’t really change at all. He apologizes to no one and doesn’t repented of his awful acts or attitudes. Yet, he is to be celebrated for expressing doubts about white supremacy and accepting Blacks as patrons (really for his business to survive). Bissell s efforts to position Ellis as a different kind of racist is just ridiculous, and he does a disservice to Ellis (and perhaps Atwater) by suggesting this is the summary of his repentance.
I wouldn’t be surprised if “The Best of Enemies” emerges as a contender come awards season. Unfortunately, it’s exactly the kind of race film Hollywood adores — one that softens white racism and presents mediocrity as heroism.
Editor’s note: A previous version of this article wrongly referred to the writer and director as Bill Russell. Robin Bissell is the writer and director of “The Best of Enemies.”