The Best of Enemies is a new historical drama that is the debut of writer-director Robin Bissell. The film stars Taraji P. Henson as activist Ann Atwater and Sam Rockwell as KKK leader C.P. Ellis as they face off against each other in a charrette focusing on the desegregation of public schools in Durham, North Carolina.
Although the story of school desegregation is undeniably an important one in American history, this movie takes it and turns it into a bland and on-the-nose melodrama. We have seen many films like this before that are about a white person and a black person getting over their differences in the Civil Rights era (one just won Best Picture), and this story does not do justice to the revolutionary people that inspired it because of the straightforward and by-the-book script.
Perhaps the most frustrating thing about this movie is that it beats its message over your head repeatedly. The film seems to think that it is brilliant because it has an anti-racist message and encourages a sense of community and togetherness. However, having a message that doesn’t promote racism should be the bare minimum. A movie shouldn’t be applauded simply because it encourages being a decent human being.
This film lacks one of the critical aspects of a successful civil rights parable: character development. Ellis gets far more development than Atwater, and although this is likely because Ellis has more of an arc, he shouldn’t be the more compelling of the characters as a leader of the KKK. Part of what is so disappointing is that the movie does plant seeds of development for Atwater, like brief bits about her family, but it never fully explores these.
That being said, the unforgivable flaw of this film is that it is simply boring. It’s about twenty to thirty minutes too long. The first section could have been cut entirely with little effect to the story or characterization, and portions of the middle could have been trimmed or shortened. The filmmakers didn’t seem to know what was impactful and what was unnecessary, so they threw everything at the audience and hoped something stuck. Very little did.
It is a shame that the performances in this movie aren’t more impressive, as the ensemble assembled for the film is absolutely phenomenal. Henson is extremely over-the-top in her lead role. In a few scenes, especially towards the beginning, you can practically see her screaming, “I want an Oscar! NOW!!!!” Rockwell isn’t terrible, but this is far from his best work. The supporting cast is filled with talented actors like John Gallagher Jr., Wes Bentley, and Bruce McGill, but none of them are used to their full extent.
Furthermore, the execution is just as generic as the script. The cinematography and production design do the bare minimum of setting the period of the movie, but they don’t do anything particularly interesting. The costuming, especially for Henson, is passable at best and distracting at worst. Additionally, the film uses popular music from the era to questionable effect.
Overall, The Best of Enemies was largely disappointing. Despite a great true story and a talented cast, the bland script keeps the movie from reaching its full potential.
The Best of Enemies is now playing in theaters.