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Film Reviews Historical melodrama The Best of Enemies is the alternate-universe Green Book no one asked for

Taraji P. Henson as local housing activist Ann Atwater in The Best of Enemies.

Astute Films

  • The Best of Enemies
  • Written and directed by: Robin Bissell
  • Starring: Sam Rockwell and Taraji P. Henson
  • Classification: PG; 133 minutes

rating

In another world much like our own, The Best of Enemies has just won the 2019 Academy Award for best picture. This parallel-universe scenario is not so unlikely, given that writer-director Robin Bissell’s film is like an alt-Green Book: a warm and fuzzy racism-for-dummies melodrama that gets to neatly assuage white guilt at the same time that it’s elevated by two performers who surely could have found better things to do with their time and talent.

Where Green Book had Mahershala Ali playing an ultra-patient black man tasked with teaching white family man Viggo Mortensen a base amount of tolerance in the American South circa 1962, The Best of Enemies has Taraji P. Henson playing an ultra-patient black woman tasked with teaching white family man Sam Rockwell a base amount of tolerance in the American South circa 1971. Bissell’s film may up the racial stakes – Mortensen’s enforcer Tony Lip was just a racist working stiff, whereas Rockwell’s C.P. Ellis is the “Exalted Cyclops” of the Durham, N.C., chapter of the Ku Klux Klan – but the patronizing message of both films is the same: racism can be killed, but only through kindness. Stop whining, oppressed people, and just help those gosh-darn racists out.

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I’ll quit the Green Book comparisons soon, but just like our universe’s best picture of 2019 (really!), The Best of Enemies attempts to bypass any criticism by pushing its based-on-a-real-friendship angle hard. And it is true that in 1971 in Durham, while participating in an obscure legal process called a charrette (a deadline-driven debate) over school desegregation, Ellis renounced his racist views and befriended local housing activist Ann Atwater. But like Peter Farrelly’s road-trip dramedy, Bissell’s film stretches and flattens history in ways big and small.

Writer-director Robin Bissell’s film is like an alt-Green Book, writes Barry Hertz.

Astute Films

Ellis, for starters, didn’t rip up his KKK membership solely thanks to an Atwater-abetted racial awakening, but also by a new-found awareness of how his fellow working men were being exploited by corporate and political elites (the real charrette was organized by the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations, a fact that goes unmentioned in the film). And though a part of the story pivots on Ellis’s fears that his children would soon be sharing the same classrooms as Atwater’s, in reality their kids already attended the same school.

An elision of facts is to be expected in such feel-good historical dramas, where the compression of truth is sidelined in favour of compelling narrative arcs and sharp characterization. Yet The Best of Enemies falls down here, too. Bissell ensures that we learn everything and anything about Ellis – his hard-luck gas-station business, his frustrated wife, his large brood, including a developmentally delayed son who lives in an institution – but almost nothing about Atwater.

We know that she’s a single mother, because she gets one line early in the film where she says, “I’ve been a single mother for a long time!” And we know that she is passionate about her activism because she’s often seen yelling. But we don’t know what she does for a living, what her daughters’ names are, what drove her to a life of community organizing, what oppression she, or any of Durham’s black residents, face on a daily basis. We do briefly see the inside of her home, but that’s only when Ellis’s wife pays a visit. And we learn that she’s kind, but only because she calls in a favour and helps out Ellis’s institutionalized son – a moment that convinces everyone’s favourite Exalted Cyclops that, hey, these black people just might be all right. Atwater’s inner life, indeed her whole character, exists only to further Ellis’s journey toward redemption.

Luckily, Henson finds just enough in this thin movie to chew on, and every moment that the actress is on screen feels like we’re glimpsing the promise of a better, different movie to come. The same goes for Rockwell, who after Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri has become an expert in playing reformed racists. Ellis gets Bissell’s full attention, but the pseudo-hero would have been impossible to stomach – no matter his eventual change of heart – were it not for Rockwell’s layered performance, which at points mixes stupidity, self-loathing and sanctimoniousness into one single, shifty look. If only the rest of Bissell’s film could so deftly multitask.

The Best of Enemies opens April 12.

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