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.