Best of Enemies is a true story based on a book titled Best of Enemies: Race and Redemption in the New South by Osha Gray Davidson. It’s the story of Ann Atwater and C.P. Ellis, an unlikely pairing in the heated battles of racism and rights in 1971 Durham, North Carolina.
We meet Ann Atwater already in the reputable position of voice-of-the-people; advocating for the poor and neglected African Americans in her town. As a fierce and loving single mother of two, she’s known as a vocal and fearless opponent to the white, male elitist government in Durham.
Enter C.P. Ellis, the owner of the whites-only gas station and the leader of the local Ku Klux Klan. “CP” has grown into a trusted resource for the City Council because he can rally his violent troops on a moment’s notice, waging terror and separatist ideals.
When the elementary school serving the black community suffers an electrical fire and becomes uninhabitable, the lines are drawn for deep bigotry and racism to collide with the needs of innocent children. The reigning judge calls on Bill Riddick, a successful mediator from Pennsylvania who’s developed a process called “charrette” to work through cultural divisions among people. Riddick arrives on the scene to call the whole town to some sort of order and understanding. It’s a beautiful process to witness; two weeks of gathering and listening. And with the skill of a surgeon, Bill Riddick establishes the ground rules and manages the discussions. Meanwhile, the townspeople wrestle with all manner of painful truths.
This film is dramatically excellent, with a thoughtful and emotionally riveting pace. We learn that one of Ellis’ sons suffers from severe Down syndrome and resides in a psychiatric hospital. Through CP’s interactions with his wife, his special-needs son and the rest of his family, we see his tender and devoted heart. Ann Atwater, because of who she is at her core, leans into the difficult hospital situation and uses her influence with a friend to help the Ellis family. Naturally, this selfless act of kindness is a catalyst to change hearts.
The film escorts us through the charrette process and we are on the edge of our seat, even though we already have a sense of the outcome – a true mark of great filmmaking. The deep emotion conveyed through cinematography and powerful performances stayed with my family and me for many hours after leaving the screening. As always, credit also goes to an excellent screenplay, that weaves beautifully through the many dimensions of this complicated time.
At Dove, we’ve considered this film carefully; there are tense scenes of ugly violence and the name of Jesus is used carelessly. While we consider this offensive, this is a magnificently told, important story, and we will award it the Dove Approved 18+ Seal.
As Christians, we recognize the atrocities and we are compelled to be vocal about the misrepresentation of Jesus’ life and commands by people who hate in His name.