In a post-“Green Book” world, the controversial yet superficial tale of race relations and reconciliation that somehow won the Oscar for Best Picture, audiences have rightly had it with misguided, devaluing depictions on screen. Maybe employing the story of black exceptionalism and black oppression to examine a white man’s redemption and self-realization is maybe not the most thoughtful and sensitive approach, right? So, STX Entertainment’s desegregation drama “The Best of Enemies,” released in the wake of that film and those mistakes, arrives awkwardly into theaters this week, relitigating the contentious Oscar win of “Green Book” and reopening old wounds.
Indeed, “Best Of Enemies” feels like it only accomplishes half of its message. The film tries to unify with themes of friendship, forgiveness and compromise that come from a bygone era of movie-making. It tells us truths we can latch onto, but also traffics in unfortunate perspectives and concessions we could really do without.
On paper, the unlikely, extraordinary story of how devoted civil rights organizer Ann Atwater (Taraji P. Henson) and surly KKK president C.P. Ellis (Sam Rockwell) found common ground in an effort to integrate schools in Durham, North Carolina in the early ‘70s feels ripe for dissection. In our political times of sharp division and discordant discourse, a drama about such diametrically-opposed forces coming together on a key societal issue feels like it could have value. But again, it’s the method, the care, and thoughtfulness that makes or breaks this kind of story, and “Best Of Enemies” could use some help here.
Rockwell plays Ellis under a growing cloud of shame, a proud man who slowly but surely realizes the gravity of his sins and their effect on the innocent. When it really occurs to him how he’s feeding such hatred—because privilege and hatred will often obfuscate any sympathy for others, apparently—the actor tries to demonstrate the burgeoning burden Ellis carries. However, it’s a bit of an odd juxtaposition to watch a performance that clearly sees no need for immediate redemption for its character centered in a movie that has every intention of granting it.
The film does not ever excuse Ellis for his grievous wrongs, but it also does not deny him his base humanity. In spurts, the film challenges all in the audience to try to see the best in those they consider the worst. It is a resounding truth; shared empathy can be a powerful course corrector, but the film still thoughtlessly spends much more attention on the oppressors’ absolution than it does any of the black victims put through hell.
Playing a mediation expert, Bill Riddick (Babou Ceesay) leads the community’s conversations and provides keen stewardship over these moments. Getting to resolution in the midst of a social crisis is hard, and often, it’s accomplished through difficult conversations, frustrations, setbacks and, eventually, rigid compromise. The old axiom “trust the process” rings true here; sometimes, it just takes tough, thankless work to accomplish vital tasks. The film is never better than when it’s dwelling in these moments.
Unfortunately, it never stays there long enough. Bissell should’ve centered the story on Riddick, and how his collaborative efforts paved the way for quite a change of heart in such a seemingly-lost man.
However, that’s not the story offered. Henson, who does splendid work as Atwater, rotates solely around Ellis’ story, and the grander narrative at hand. This is Rockwell’s movie—the racist who has a change of heart, naturally—to guide, and he at least leads it with more convincing ability than Bissell. Rather than conflate yet another Hollywood tale of how a white dude learns to be a better person through realizing basic human truths about his neighbor, the film would have been wiser to offer an authentic story on the sincere importance of diverse voices. But it still can’t help but be stuck in the backward, outdated “Driving Miss Daisy” mode of applauding the asshole for being better at the expense of those who suffer. The right performances are there, but the right vessel and minds to lead behind the scenes are sorely lacking.
“The Best of Enemies” has good intentions, and some potent things to say, but its novice direction and limited perspective fail it from becoming anything other than this season’s “Green Book.” We need stories about the challenging and messy nature of social progress, and oppressors realizing their faults and attempting to rectify their wrongs can be teachable moments. But giving oppressors the spotlight at the cost of the victims is draining and it’s not the onus of the marginalized to create a safe space where the privileged can learn from their horrible mistakes and find their redemptive path. “Best Of Enemies” wants to enlighten you, but, like so many of its peers (and “Green Book”), it really could use a bit of enlightening itself and a contemporary education on who and what to put value and worth on in stories of racial strife and false notions of salvation. [C-]