With shades of Green Book, The Best of Enemies is a big ol’ ball of yikes

With shades of Green Book, The Best of Enemies is a big ol’ ball of yikes
If you learn one thing from this well-meaning, feel-good biopic about the black community organizer who became friends with the local leader of the Ku Klux Klan – well, it’ll be the meaning of charrette. Anything else, I’m going to guess you already know going in.

A charrette (I didn’t know either) is a working group of stakeholders convened to solve a problem. At issue in The Best of Enemies – set in Durham, N.C., in 1971 – was that a fire in the town’s all-black school led to talk of integration.

Arguing for, on the assumption that it would improve the lot of poor black students, is the voluble Ann Atwater (Taraji P. Henson). Her polar opposite is C.P. Ellis (Sam Rockwell), a KKK bigwig who runs a whites-only gas station whose oil-company motto – “Be Sure with Pure” – could double as a racial slogan.

Out-of-towner Bill Riddick (Babou Ceesay) decides to make these two the co-chairs of the charrette, which Rockwell’s character derides as a charade. But they agree rather than let the other have all the say in the issue. And of course, working closely with one another, darned if they don’t both start to see the other’s point of view.

There’s more than a little of Green Book’s DNA in Robin Bissell’s directing debut, and I was even more troubled in this case with the unbalanced narrative – it’s Rockwell’s trip to redemption, and didn’t he already get that in Three Billboards? – and with such easy touches as making Mrs. Ellis (Anne Heche) a level-headed non-racist, quietly pushing her husband from the home front to do the right thing.

The climax, where the committee members vote on the charrette’s proposal for integration, goes on longer than the debates in 2012’s Lincoln, and with about as much uncertainty as to the outcome. And while the actors do good work, nobody is really stepping outside their comfort zone here. Neither will white audiences be pushed anywhere they don’t want to go, or haven’t been already.

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