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Starting the Conversation: 'The Best of Enemies'

My friend has a strange secret hobby. He really likes watching videos of people punching Nazis, which, apparently, can be found on YouTube. His logic is that everyone should like punching Nazis.

I get the concept. There’s the rush that comes with someone getting a faceful of punching that can’t be matched. Captain America makes it look really cool. In the face of evil, we should - on paper - do anything we can to eradicate such evil. It is the tolerance of evil that makes it spread.

But we can’t punch our way out of the divisions that our country faces. And maybe we shouldn’t. A question must be raised: is fighting evil through non-violent and humanitarian means a form of tolerance, or is it the only hope we have in seeing real, lasting change?

 “The Best of Enemies” is probably going to get completely buried. It is opening against  big movies: “Shazam!” and “Pet Sematary.” I am not going to hide it. I really want to see those movies. But “The Best of Enemies” is a movie that we, as a country, need right now.

When I watched the trailer, I was pretty skeptical. Since “Green Book” won Best Picture at the Academy Awards this year, I have been wary of the easy-answers-guide-to-historical-racism kind of movies. Too often, I feel like we are given movies where topics like racism seem to have been solved, and they seem intended to remind us that we are in an era of enlightenment. That’s a dangerous narrative.

The trailer for “The Best of Enemies” looked like it was going to be another “Green Book.” I foresaw the story of a racist man who learns to love by getting to know an interesting person of color. Through friendship, they would solve the problem of racism.

I am so grateful that “The Best of Enemies” is not that movie. Set in North Carolina in 1971, the story chronicles the true tale of Ann Atwater and C.P. Ellis. It is not a spoiler to say that the two end up friends. The film opens with the audio of the two discussing each other.  Over the course of the film, the two are responsible for being the opposing voices of school integration in a town overshadowed by the Ku Klux Klan.

Ann Atwater, a woman of color, has been the voice for change in this town, while C.P. Ellis is the local president of the Ku Klux Klan. These two could not be farther apart. Going into this film, I thought it was going to be a situation where small kindnesses and passing jokes would change the hearts of these two individuals. Perhaps the movie would parallel the conflicting philosophies of Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Antonin Scalia; a tale of two unlikely friends.

It isn’t that.

Yes, the movie tells us that they will end up friends, but it isn’t because they’re friendly. These two people fought tooth and nail for what they believed in. But they also started to see the humanity of one another. It isn’t about tolerating evil. It is seeing where that evil comes from.

From a Catholic perspective, I can’t help but admire the two views of Christianity presented in the film. Unfortunately, we never really have the authentic Catholic voice in a narrative that intentionally places people of faith in it. But this is a film free of atheists. There is an African American pastor who recommends closing every meeting with gospel music. C.P. Ellis closes every Klan meeting with a prayer asking God to protect the white race. Ann Atwater holds her bible tightly. C.P. Ellis counters by citing his heavenly right to defend himself. There’s never a moment where the opposite sides sit down and pray with each other. I’m not sure if that would help or hinder the movie. But as a Catholic, I couldn’t help but see the irony in the whole situation. There is so much common ground that they refuse to see in the film.

I wonder if I hold the same traits, ignoring everything I have in common with others and choosing not to build on that.

I adore the main actors in this film. The film snob in me will call back to Taraji P. Henson’s appearance in “Hustle & Flow,” but I really became a fan with the first season of “Person of Interest.” While I never finished that show, I remember that she might have been the actor who was most invested in her character. The same holds true in “The Best of Enemies.”

Henson’s performance is perfect. Atwater is both a powerhouse and a human at the same time. The times I got really moved, it was because of something that Henson’s Atwater did. If I laughed, it was because of her. If I grew introspective, it was because of a choice that she made. Her understanding of this character is remarkably impressive, and her character is the core of this film.

Sam Rockwell is one of my favorite actors, so it is odd to say that there were times that I wasn’t exactly overwhelmed with his character. Rockwell shines when he has more outrageous characters. Given that Rockwell’s C.P. Ellis was the head of the Klan, there might have been a temptation to make the character large and evil. But Rockwell had to play a real person. Part of the message of the story is that Ellis was attracted to the Klan because he has never really found a place to fit in outside of the Klan. He is a simple man who has been carried away by hate. Sam Rockwell plays the role well, but it may not be the role that will be memorable for most.

Even if “The Best of Enemies” dominates the box office this weekend, I’m afraid that one flaw in the film might distance audiences. Because C.P. Ellis is a Klansman, he is the bad guy. If the movie is talking about the separation of fundamental values, “The Best of Enemies” makes the mistake of creating a clear good guy and a clear bad guy. Most people don’t want to be associated with the Klan. The message is strong in the film: listen to each other and try to understand each other. But I also know that the presence of the Ku Klux Klan makes it difficult when the other side is fighting for a clear good, like school integration.

Robin Bissell’s look back at 1971 Durham is a stroke of mastery not because it tackles racism. Lots of movies tackle racism. But Bissell looked at racism through a complicated lens and offered not only the characters a means to move on from that poison, but a way for its audience to move on from that poison as well.

Perhaps the solution provided in “The Best of Enemies” isn’t a perfect formula. It probably wouldn’t work with many problems encountered today. But the movie actually offers something invaluable. The movie offers a step in the right direction.