The Best of Enemies (2019) Sept 26, 2019 15:35:49 GMT -5
Post by StevePulaski on Sept 26, 2019 15:35:49 GMT -5
The Best of Enemies (2019)
Directed by: Robin Bissell
Directed by: Robin Bissell
Sam Rockwell, Babou Ceesay, and Taraji P. Henson.
The Best of Enemies opens with black activist Ann Atwater (Taraji P. Henson) filing a compliant about the abysmal housing conditions for African-Americans. It's 1971, Durham, North Carolina to be specific, and she's infuriated that tenants lack basic necessities, such as toilets. Her anger is more than justified. It's too bad writer/director Robin Bissell spends the next two hours sidelining her story in favor of zeroing in on the redemption of a cantankerous Ku Klux Klan president.
Despite the film taking place almost 20 years after the Brown v. Board of Education ruling, school segregation was apparently still pretty common in Durham, as the topic of integration didn't come to a head until black students return to their recently burned school and find it uninhabitable. Parents heavily involved with their kids at the white schools across town do not want to see black students attend their coveted schools, and this controversy compounds Ann's anger that blacks are still treated as second-class citizens despite massive federal legislature.
Then there's C.P. Ellis (Sam Rockwell), the aforementioned KKK president, who spends his days working or caring for his family and children. Bissell juxtaposes the stories of Ann and C.P., who become better acquainted during a two-week, city-wide "charette," resurrecting the debate to end segregation and force black and white students to integrate in Durham.
Because this film is a treacly display of the problem of racism being resolved by two people of different backgrounds and skin-colors coming to a mutual understanding, C.P. will inevitably see the light and realize that his outspoken hatred for blacks is morally unconscionable. With that, Ann, I suppose, will see his true colors and realize he was just an uneducated soul worthy of the same respect he was never kind enough to grant her.
Hollywood films about racism love centering around a forced friendship between a black person and a white person, mainly because it gives an opportunity for the white person to see that people of color are capable of being halfway decent people. In a radical, optimistic sense, these films subtly call out the ignorance of those who oppose anything and everything they're unfamiliar with until they're slapped in the face with the very issues they thought were simply black-and-white, so to speak. The Best of Enemies lacks the gravitas and emotional heft a story like this should effortlessly have. Green Book, the obvious point of comparison, did a better job of humanizing both parties despite having its own misgivings. No matter how you'd like to slice it, C.P. feels like your archetypal angry white man and Ann feels like your archetypal angry black woman, with little personality parsing their stereotypes.
Just in the way the film paints contentious debate and courtroom drama feels too theatrical, and akin to last year's On the Basis of Sex, the Ruth Bader Ginsburg biopic, Bissell seems too caught up in easy heroes and easy villains to focus on the complexity of the core issue. The initial meeting between the black tenants and the stringy landlords in court, as they argue about inadequate housing conditions, feels like a stage-play with its emotionally charged monologues, lessening their impact and positing them as simply predictable. For such a character-centered narrative, and for as long as the film itself is, it still surprisingly feels half-baked when it comes to showing how Ann and C.P. really became friends. I'm sure it took longer than a couple weeks for C.P. to discard years of racism and Ku Klux Klan pride. Consequently, C.P.'s revelation feels woefully unearned and underdeveloped. Maybe a film that spent more time focusing on Ann and C.P.'s relationship after the charette would've been more ideal.
The Best of Enemies amounts to a feeble historical trinket that minimizes its courageous lead, and boils down to the type of film your grandparents will appreciate. It's not that every film about race has to be as combative as BlacKkKlansman, but in a time in America that has proven to be a hot-bed for racial tension and inequality, the last thing we need is a film that tells us about the virtue of "hearing the other side's argument" and finds more interest in the white supremacist than it does the black woman fighting for basic rights and decency. Perhaps I'd be less cynical if I had an even iota of hope that the type of people who should see this film and take its message to heart would, but it's likely they don't even know it exists.
Starring: Taraji P. Henson, Sam Rockwell, and Babou Ceesay. Directed by: Robin Bissell.