You know it can’t be a film set in the Nixon-era American South without some N-bombs dropped throughout the movie. If you saw the trailer for The Best of Enemies, you would have thought that this was a film about segregation in the South during the early 1970s. However, you find out at the end that this is a film about two individuals from completely opposite sides coming together for the greater good of the community. While that sounds like a great story, that isn’t the story you are being told.
The Best of Enemies is set in Durham, North Carolina in 1971. After an electrical fire damages the vast majority of an all black elementary school, the town becomes the home of a fierce debate about whether or not to integrate the schools between black and white students. The city decides to have a two week community meeting to decide the fate of the school with civil rights activist Ann Atwater (Taraji P. Henson) on one side and the leader of the local Ku Klux Klan C. P. Ellis (Sam Rockwell) on the other.
The performances of Taraji P. Henson and Sam Rockwell is what carries this film across the finish line, but even then you cannot shake how disjointed this story is. You have a film that is trying to present two different perspectives, but has no idea how to pull it off. C.P Ellis is the character we spend the most time with and his journey to becoming a reformed Klansman doesn’t feel earned at all. The only screentime Rockwell shares with Henson is when the two are yelling at each other, but somehow it takes only one indirect act of kindness for him to change his mind about black people as a whole? The movie delicates the ending to the real life friendship the characters shared for over 30 years but there is nothing in this film that makes us believe that story.
We know Ellis actually does turn his life around, but if that is the outcome they were going for, they should have made him the focus from the beginning. Instead, we get Taraji P. Henson who outside of the first act feels so disconnected to the rest of the story that she feels more like a roadblock. The two characters are not equally presented for the audience to believe that they would even speak to each other again after the meeting let alone become good friends. Outside of the core story, all you get is the writer desperately trying to convince you that the Democrats had nothing to do with the Klan running North Carolina in the early 70s.
The Best of Enemies is a film with good acting, but largely no sense of direction with the performances they were given.