Reel Dad: ‘The Best of Enemies’ delivers interesting lesson

"The Best of Enemies"
"The Best of Enemies"

The history lesson is strong in “The Best of Enemies,” a well-intentioned look at racial tension in the South in the early 1970s. Writer/director Robin Bissell expands a little-known chapter from the past into a broad look at the change some people still resist. But as strong as his intent as a moviemaker may be, the film misses the chance to be memorable because he fails to trust the audience with all the details. Instead of painting a picture filled with insight, he opts to create his movie with broad strokes.
We find ourselves in Durham, N.C., in 1971. While many parts of the country have progressed in race relations, this home to 95,000 houses people that laws intend to integrate but find themselves leading separate lives. Despite the rulings, white students attend different schools than black students, white politicians protect their constituents from black voices, and groups of white men dress in sheets to make black lives as uncomfortable as possible.

But Ann Atwater thinks differently. This outspoken, committed and engaging black woman uses her platform — as a civil rights activist with common sense and fundamental goodness — to take on a white establishment determined to protect the status quo. With one conversation connecting to another, Atwater uses the power of friendship and persuasion to help people advance without necessarily realizing how much they would be changing. For her, people matter, all people, of any race. And, when she finds herself in a war of words with the local Ku Klux Klan leader, we see how this strong-willed lady may use her charm to win over her opponent. Because, to Atwater, the outcome she needs for others may require that she reach beyond herself.
If you think you may have seen this movie before, you may be remembering this year’s Oscar-winning “Green Book” or, from years ago, the classic “Driving Miss Daisy.” “The Best of Enemies” falters by comparison. While those earlier films take time to carefully build their characters — before starting to explore how opposites might connect — the new film jumps immediately into the conflicts without offering details about the people. To keep the story moving, Bissell misses the chance for help us discover why these people so believe what they believe. We don’t get to know more about who they are before the movie asks us to consider the possibilities of how they might change so they can connect.
Now, the actors help, with Taraji P. Henson and Sam Rockwell filling in the gaps in character development from the script. Rockwell, especially, brings a strong authenticity to the questions his character begins to ask despite some similarities to the actor’s Oscar-winning turn in “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.” Henson works hard to play against type in a role that requires a personality large enough to fill the shadows this woman casts. Henson searches for ways to exaggerate the performance without sacrificing the integrity of this woman’s mission.
While we need more about these characters to appreciate the steps they take, “The Best of Enemies” does bring a sincere sense of purpose to the screen. And that’s enough to make us cheer about people who search for ways to connect despite their differences.

Film Nutritional Value: “The Best of Enemies”

Content: High. As the film recreates a turbulent moment in our nation’s history it reminds us that, unless we are careful, it could happen again.
Entertainment: High. The serious messages come to life as Taraji P. Henson and Sam Rockwell restage a moment of time we need to know.
Message: Medium. Anyone who cares about a community, and the fairness that people share, should savor this picture of what can happen when people reach beyond what they fear.
Relevance: High. Any opportunity to talk with children about the relations between races is essential at any time, especially now.
Opportunity for Dialogue: High. You and your older children should share this film for the messages it so thoughtfully conveys.
The Best of Enemies is rated PG-13 for “thematic material, racial epithets, some violence and a suggestive reference.” The film runs 2 hours, 13 minutes. It is showing in local theaters.

‘Detroit’ is a needed return to a devastating time

If we choose, we can learn from history. If we keep our minds and hearts open to what we explore, we can absorb the meaning of past events. These lessons will teach us what to avoid as we move forward. But we have to present to learn. And willing to change.

While “The Best of Enemies” recreates one chapter in American history, Kathryn Bigelow’s film “Detroit” becomes a powerful reminder of the impact of hatred between races. Seen today, with all we experience in recent our world, its message could not be more significant. This detailed, heart-breaking recreation of the Detroit riots of 1967 reminds us what can happen when people only believe in what they fear. When we refuse to be accountable for the fragility of human life.

From its first moments — one evening as the riots begin — we know Detroit will be serious about its issues. As a director, Bigelow does not shoot violence scenes from an artistic view. Rather she restages what history teaches in painstaking detail for multiple cameras to capture it. This approach puts us in the middle of horrifying events, surrounded by anger, unable to escape the intensity. We are there in Detroit in 1967. And we can’t get away.

Bigelow’s history lesson focuses on one turbulent event in the heat of that summer. As she so artfully accomplished with the Oscar-winning “The Hurt Locker,” the director visually establishes the context of conflict before developing her characters. By first establishing the background of racial tension she makes it easier to get to know the people affected. We meet three young black men who seek safety from the streets in a local motel only to find their illusions of security rudely interrupted by events they do not understand and cannot control. With the precision of a documentarian, Bigelow creates a thriller out of a story we know. With the creativity of an artist, she brings this moment alive by making us care for the individuals impacted by hatred. She does not simply show the blood that hatred can create. She articulates why it matters.

This is the director’s film. While her screenwriter, Mark Boal, may let the narrative slow in the film’s final third, and the film feels long, Bigelow never lets the tension ease. She is so committed to the material, and focused on the message, that she sacrifices obvious “movie moments” where she could show off her camera to tell a story she knows the camera can capture. And she is so well connected to her cast that we see what occurs through their eyes. As a security guard, John Boyega becomes the conscience of these events while Algee Smith shines as a singer who longs to find a way for his voice to be heard.  

We can learn from history. And we must. Movies help when they explore issues or moments with might otherwise forget. “Detroit” may not be an easy film to watch but it’s an essential film to experience. Especially now. It opens our eyes to what we may not see and fills our hearts with what we should feel. Revisiting the summer of 1967, when too many made choices influenced by violence, brings us home to how the negative can forever destroy. At any time.

“Detroit” is rated R for “strong violence and pervasive language.” The film runs 2 hours, 23 minutes. It is available to stream online.