Posted April 7, 2019 in Drama
Even though it’s been decades since the real-life showdown between Klan leader C.P. Ellis and civil rights activist Ann Atwater, The Best of Enemies is filled with characters that feel familiar to me, thanks to my upbringing in a town not unlike Durham, North Carolina. This perspective undoubtedly informed my view of the film, which can be summed up in saying that while the script writers sought to balance the light and dark elements of a stunningly true story, it fell a short of feeling truly authentic.
First off, the good: the visual elements of this film were a character all their own. From C.P’s ill-fitting polyester pants to Ann’s button-down dress that gave me flashbacks of my great-grandmother, these characters genuinely looked like people from my hometown. Surrounding these characters were rich textures and lighting, at times cloaked in the haze of a southern summer humidity. The visual experience of the film played a key role in immersing us into this bygone era, partnering with Taraji P. Henson and Sam Rockwell to deliver a host of characters that lingered in my memory long after I’d left the theater.
Secondly, the bad: for a major motion picture of a true story, the dialogue and pacing frequently felt more like a play featuring caricatures of southern archetypes. As a southerner myself, perhaps this stood out more than it would to others. Even so, Taraji’s dramatic gesturing as the curvy Atwater, at times, looked more a match for the stage than the screen. The film would have benefitted from more subtlety—less padding in Henson’s body suit, shorter close-ups of greasy Klan members with hideous sunglasses, and street lights with an intensity slightly less than that of the setting sun. With actors like Rockwell and Henson, you really do not need to be heavy-handed; I understand the desire to balance the sheer vulgarity of racism, but the aspiration to create levity felt too apparent on more than one occasion.
For both the good and the bad of the film, I am glad it brought to my attention these people and their triumph over racism’s divisiveness. Great casting did not entirely overcome its shortcomings, but the film accomplished what it set out to do: make me feel equal parts uncomfortable and hopeful about the fight against racism in America.
by Shanna Lockwood