I wish I could tell you that The Best of Enemies isn’t this year’s Green Book, but I can’t. They are very much molded from the same exhausting “But this movie has good intentions!” place, the kind of awful middle ground that settled us into a reality where goddamn Green Book won Best Picture at the Oscars just a few weeks ago.
THAT WAS JUST A FEW WEEKS AGO. Doesn’t time feel meaningless? I spent three hours of my life at the movie theater last night for The Best of Enemies. SO YES. TIME FEELS MEANINGLESS.
The Best of Enemies, from first-time director and screenwriter Robin Bissell, is, just like Green Book, “based on a true story,” this time the same-named book by Osha Gray Davidson. The full title of the book, The Best of Enemies: Race and Redemption in the New South, prioritizes “Race,” but that’s not what the movie does. No, this movie is entirely about “Redemption,” about how one horribly racist white man—a goddamn leader of a local Ku Klux Klan chapter!—was saved by the black people he spent his entire life hating, discriminating against, and being violent toward.
He calls them the n-word so many times that I tried to keep count in my notes but I got distracted when someone else in the theater started snoring and I lost track. (Blessings upon that man.) He sneers and mocks black men, women, and children. He brandishes his rifle, which he gets out of the trunk of his car, toward two black people with whom he’s barely spent any time. He refuses to sit down and eat at the same table as them. And oh, cool, I’m supposed to sympathize with my dude and eventually root for him to finally understood as a goddamn adult that everything he’s been doing is actually really fucking bad? No thank you, I’m fine.
As C. P. Ellis, the Ku Klux Klan president of Durham, North Carolina, Sam Rockwell does the same thing he did to Academy Award success in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, which is to play a racist doofus with a mixture of patheticness, fragility, and despicability. And while this movie is called The Best of Enemies—you know, enemies, plural, two characters—the great majority of the film (I would guess about 70%) is focused on Rockwell as Ellis. Yes, Taraji P. Henson co-stars as civil rights activist and organizer Ann Atwater, but this is not a movie that provides her character with the same amount of interiority as it does Ellis. This movie begins with him and ends with him, spends time with him at numerous KKK meetings and training sessions at a shooting range, provides us with his interactions with his wife and his children and his disabled, hospitalized son, gives us the full portrait of a man who, we hear, believes in the KKK not as a weapon of oppression and racism but as a means of unity and belonging.
Does this sound familiar to you? This narrative suggesting that institutions that are clearly and unapologetically devoted to the exclusion of others are actually just concerned with keeping themselves safe? That’s the shit racists say to protect themselves every goddamn time. And this movie allows for that narrative to continue unchecked, making the argument—as Green Book did—that if minorities and people of color would just explain themselves to white people more, then magically those people in power, whose power was built on violence and segregation, would sympathize with them.
Oh, having a conversation was ALL IT TOOK? You’re right, it wasn’t a goddamn civil war or years of disobedience to erode the institutionalized racism that followed. You’re right, it wasn’t that countless black people were killed or that Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X were both assassinated. I forgot that it was polite conversations with KKK members that got us all to the point of racial harmony and equality we’re at today. I forgot everything was fixed and that racism no longer exists. I forgot we’re all good now. Cool, cool, cool.
Anyway, I guess at some point I should talk about the plot of this damn movie, so let’s do it. It’s 1971 in Durham, and the KKK basically seems to run the entire city. Ellis is in with the local government, and as the president of the KKK, he says stuff like “Our race is our nation” and “We must fight the good fight” and “The crowning glory of a Klansman is to serve.” Alongside two of his cronies, including Wes Bentley (curse how good this man looks in aviators!), he shoots up the home of a white woman who might be dating a black man. And when the local elementary school for black children is deemed unfit to reopen after a fire, and the NAACP sues to allow the black children to attend the local white school, he serves as the white representative in a charrette meant to determine what the community wants to do about school desegregation.
Also serving on the charrette to represent the interests of the black community in Durham is Atwater, who has made a name for herself storming city hall meetings, yelling at councilmen, keeping a tight hold on her volunteers, and generally making life hell for white people. Ann Atwater should be the damn story we see in this movie! But nope, that’s not what we get, because Ann already knows who she is and knows that racism is wrong so she doesn’t get the hero’s journey. Her resoluteness isn’t worth a focus. She recedes to the background during the charrette process as Ellis realizes that, whoa, maybe black people like, aren’t so bad? And the entirety of his transformation is based around the fact that a black person does something nice for him and his family. That’s it! That’s IT! A selfish motivation instead of an altruistic one! Once again, just like Green Book, because apparently the only way to convince white people that non-white people are also human beings is if they are on the receiving end of kindness.
In the months since I saw Green Book, I remain overwhelmingly exhausted by this idea that the only thing we need to do to make the world a better place is sit down and talked to each other. That’s the definition of civility, I suppose, and I’m tired of it. Because never does this endeavor put the onus on the people who are ignorant, who are racist, who are prejudiced, who are hurting others with their opinions and their actions, as those who should be self-reflective or self-motivated. It is always other people—people of color, the LGBTQIA community, the voiceless, the powerless, all the intersections in between—asked upon to share and educate and put themselves out there for the benefit of those who enter the conversation by not giving a fuck about them at all.
And even by the end of The Best of Enemies, we don’t get a sense of what else happened to the black community in Durham, although they are allegedly just as important to this narrative as Ellis. How did desegregation progress? Did the KKK remain active in Durham? Again, none of the issues actually affecting the black community takes center focus. Instead, we see Ellis struggle, and Ellis have his business saved by the black community, and real-life footage of the pair together in their elderly years shows us Ellis offering Atwater his arm to walk across a room. How gallant. How gentlemanly. I guess that sort of thing absolves the years he spent teaching hate and spreading violence and being an actual goddamn white nationalist. The Best of Enemies sure wants you to think it does.
Image sources (in order of posting): Epk.tv/STXfilms, Epk.tv/STXfilms, Epk.tv/STXfilms, Epk.tv/STXfilms