If one were to tell me when I started out as an amateur critic, that I would eventually cover an Odd Couple-esque film that paired up a Klan member and a small-town civil rights activist, and it wasn’t necessarily a comedy, I surely would’ve taken it as a slight joke. In 2019, however, the rulebook’s been thrown out, and Sam Rockwell has proven his dramatic badassery once more. In The Best of Enemies, he’s the newly dignified Exalted Cyclops for the KKK’s Durham, NC chapter. As desegregation is still a naïve, fairly new concept in his town, his world is bound for a complete, fulfilling ceiling shatter when paired up with a radical activist for a common good.
The 70s were still in their relative infancy when the NAACP finally decided to propose unification in Durham’s schools. The catalyst for which had emerged when a fire breaks out in the town’s predominately black elementary school; nowadays, they’d just be bussed to a neighboring school to finish out the year, but instead, they remain in the damaged building. Ann Atwater (Taraji P. Henson), a local activist who had been trying to champion for improved housing has no trouble adding this extra burden to her plate, given it’s her kids who are deeply impacted. Her common enemy, C.P. Ellis (Rockwell), the aforementioned Klan leader, and local auto mechanic, is as stubborn as a mule, and only seeks to shut down any hope for an instant solution to the problem.
The city cannot openly support an emergency solution, so the NAACP decides to dip its toes in, enlisting one of their closest contacts in mediation, the plucky Bill Riddick (Into the Badlands regular Babou Ceesay) to travel to Durham. His idea: administer a ten-day charrette, something he’s well-versed in, through his urban planning experience. In such an intense arena, local community officials are invited to voice their concerns or beliefs, one side reluctantly led by Ellis, the other led by Atwater. Both are squared at each other’s throats right from the get-go, and yet if we know lighthearted films with a social justice flavor like the average moviegoer would, then what follows manages to stay very by-the-numbers, perhaps too much.
Best of Enemies maintains a firm caliber of talent, despite its tendency to trod on familiar thematic territory. Robin Bissell, best known in Hollywood circles as a producing partner for ever-reliable Gary Ross (The Hunger Games, Seabiscuit), puts much of that natural mentoring to effective use in his debut feature. Like many a true-life biopic where you live or die on how accurate you can be and still hold onto a sliver of dramatic tension to keep the audience engaged, Bissell can only excel on the latter, fudging the truth but only when most essential. It may not be as often as one could fear, but it cannot completely speak to the real hardships of the era; its approach is quite meaningful, a few stray emotions landing firmly on their feet, but also clouded, unsure of trajectory, and overloading itself with backstory that all but slows down the first act.
Its incredibly strong ensemble does not see much of a challenge, however; all of them deliver high marks, and then some. Henson, still the steadfast leading lady of Empire; and Rockwell, the ever-versatile Oscar winner who’s more than comfortable with scaling back somewhat after a big attention-grabber each of the last two award seasons, make for a weirdly captivating pair, despite the chemistry being rather strained. When they do get together, it’s with figurative claws over hugs, which suit their personalities okay, as they’re all still about the matter at hand, and not so much trying to become friends. More like friendly working colleagues. Separately, they each experience a unique evolution where they discover each other’s respective cultures for the better, and transforming into their roles with a certain exhaustion, considering how much energy they truly put into their efforts. For Henson, her natural spirit and intensity is unwavering, adaptable to certain standards we may be best used to in a purely dramatic actress.
Rockwell’s genre diversity may be easier to recognize, but his character evolution is not so cut-and-past. Again, it’s a somewhat skewed departure from anything more comic he’s portrayed in recent memory that takes much of the first act to grow comfortable with, even with the whole KKK element in his life. It’s still a potentially classic role on his behalf, dependent on how much of an audience can be reached. Of course, warming up to each other’s separate cultures doesn’t come as easy, and those closest to them may have the most to lose should it go south. Ellis’s wife, Mary (a dignified Anne Heche) may have too much on her plate already, with two noisy kids at home, and a third working through developmental handicaps (Kevin Ianucci in a scene-stealing performance) that had left him in a psych hospital, in not-quite-best conditions. Of course, she still challenges her hubby to try and do the commendable thing, which just makes her screen presence matter, almost unexpectedly.
Then there are a few fellow Klan members who take matters into their own hands to negatively influence the final vote, among them the cocky Floyd Kelly (Wes Bentley), keen on breaking the rules a little, and again, slowing the action way down. Followed by the local housing authority administrator (Bruce McGill), and his fellow city leaders who may not be fully convinced; and finally, Riddick in the middle, who may have to be the worst of the bad guys, but still is determined to get the job done. Ceesay works about the same way, holding onto his hesitations to ensure the right work is captured.
We’ve seen this same sort of civil rights biopic before. It runs too long, its expositionary nature requires an extra dosage of patience to earn a payoff, the dialogue and accents are borderline clichéd. And yet, its wayward southern charm may win out, especially with a confident, talented cast that knows the responsibilities that fall within the material. The Best of Enemies may not sit well with everyone, and it’s bound to test someone’s attention span; I was grateful for it to be over, knowing I felt a slight overload at the tail-end. But I can still tell when a winning ensemble can make an otherwise rough script advantageous, and Bissell proves he can do just, showing his potential as a steady filmmaker who can do the work without expecting perfection. Not every first-time feature can be legendary; this one was rough, but then again, so was that summer in Durham. It may not be an accurate depiction, but there’s no reason why it couldn’t be as impactful of one. (C)
The Best of Enemies opens in most area theaters this weekend; rated PG-13 for thematic material, racial epithets, some violence and a suggestive reference; 133 minutes.