In the new desegregation drama The Best of Enemies, several characters are punished, menaced, or downright terrorized for crossing the Ku Klux Klan. Their homes are broken into or riddled with bullets, their livelihoods are imperiled, and their bodies are threatened by the specter of sexual violence. The twist? These targets are all white: a woman in an interracial relationship, a business owner with black employees, and advocates of a hotly debated 1971 policy that would integrate Durham Public Schools. If the two real-life black leaders advancing the local cause, community activist Ann Atwater (Taraji P. Henson) and mediator Bill Riddick (Babou Ceesay), faced any racial backlash of their own in a town where the Klan was active and well connected, we don’t see it. All of which raises the question: Why in the world does a movie about the white victims of the Klan exist in 2019?
For the record, I don’t think writer-director Robin Bissell (I’ll save you the Google search—he’s a white man) believes the KKK was a greater danger to white liberals than to black people. A charitable interpretation might attribute to Bissell the assumption that we all know the history of the Klan and its decades of violence against black Americans. The film is also, admittedly, a convincing and necessary illustration of how the KKK was normalized and mobilized in many towns to perpetuate white supremacy through legal and extralegal means. But the fact remains that this failed bit of Oscar bait focuses almost exclusively on how hard it is to be a white ally, rather than on the many injustices of school segregation or the humanity of the black children whose futures are at stake. Some viewers will certainly find The Best of Enemies a nuanced take on how racism doesn’t just afflict its most obvious victims. Still, it’s impossible to ignore that the film is yet another Hollywood narrative of racial reconciliation centered on a white protagonist—and worse, it’s one that seems much more interested in the Klan’s white targets than its black ones.
Bissell takes the title of his film from author Osha Gray Davidson’s nonfiction account of the Durham debate over integration, which ultimately led to a friendship between Atwater and C.P. Ellis (Sam Rockwell), then a decorated bigwig within the North Carolina Klan. (Ellis’ official title was exalted cyclops, per the Dungeons and Dragons–style ranks of the organization.) Later, the two friends would go on a speaking tour to talk about their unlikely bond. But The Best of Enemies is no Green Book, in that the first thawing of the frost between the two opponents doesn’t occur until well over an hour into the movie, and Henson gets no arc of her own. There’s some buddy-buddy bonhomie between Ann and Bill, who distrust each other’s political tactics (she calls him an “Uncle Tom”; he doesn’t think her reputation as “Roughhouse Annie” will get her very far). But neither character gets all that much to do, since C.P.’s road to Damascus takes so long to travel.
That journey is a slog, and the scenery is remarkably wan, drab, and predictable. Bissell’s showiest bit of direction is reserved for an early scene, in which three Klan members shoot up the house of a young white woman rumored to have a black boyfriend. (They do not confirm this before loading their rifles.) When the unnamed character’s possessions are demolished in a hail of bullets, Bissell captures it all in slow motion, and his eye appears more intrigued by the “awesomeness” of the shattering objects than in the emotional horror of watching your home annihilated in a hate crime.
Though as charmingly rascally as ever, Rockwell displays none of the conflicted depth that earned him a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his performance in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. (Rockwell seems to be making an odd habit of playing violent racists who undergo a change of heart.) For her part, Henson does the most that she can in a limited role. The Empire actress is thoroughly deglamorized, seen at one point with a half-eaten rib in her hand, telling off C.P. midchew. The irascible, rough-hewn Ann is a fascinating contrast to the polished, silver-tongued civil rights leaders we’re used to seeing on screen and in historical footage (particularly as those leaders took care to present themselves and their supporters as much as possible as clean cut and middle class, so as to argue, both with their words and their wardrobe, that they were deserving of equal treatment). But The Best of Enemies is too uninterested in Ann to contextualize her unruly, working-class femininity within the larger movement, and Henson doesn’t do anything that we haven’t seen from her before.
Amid the mostly lackluster performances (one exception is Anne Heche’s turn as C.P.’s independent-minded wife) and the persistent efforts to explain C.P.’s attraction to the Klan is a hectoring thematic throughline about how best to achieve equality. The key, according to the film, is dialogue and altruism—namely, black overtures to white hate. The onus is as misplaced as the movie’s sympathies.