In Robin Bissell’s new based-on-a-true-story film The Best of Enemies, African-American civil rights activist Ann Atwater (Taraji P. Henson) goes head to head with Ku Klux Klan chief C.P. Ellis (Sam Rockwell) over the proposed integration of Durham, N.C. public schools. Along the way, the two formed an unlikely friendship and Ellis changed his worldview.
An electrical fire at the African-American school in Durham prompts community activists to suggest African-American children go to school with white children for the first time. Naturally, Ellis and his Ku Klux Klan cronies are upset. A judge suggests the community hold a charrette (essentially a mediation process where the community works to find a mutually beneficial solution).
The movie is a little too leisurely paced at times (it runs 132 minutes), but it’s mostly engaging. While the film centers around Henson and Rockwell’s characters, it wisely allows room to flesh out other members of the community. It also correctly acknowledges class distinctions within both racial groups.
The examination of the charrette process is also interesting. It required face-to-face conversations by people with wildly divergent viewpoints. Not everyone changed their minds at the end of it, but at least one important person did, and that was enough to create change in Durham. In an era where people burrow further and further into their respective niches in cable news and social media, the concept of people being forced to meet face-to-face and acknowledge the other as human beings seems like a radical one. But it’s an idea worth remembering in today’s increasingly divided world.