This weekend marked two weeks in a row where I saw a serious movie, this time The Best of Enemies. I could have seen Shazam!, but I am a Marvel man through and through. I also thought that looked and sounded ridiculous, if for no other reason than the title. Aside from a distaste for the latest DC Comics installment, I am also a lover of history and wanted to satisfy the Ph.D. side of my brain. Thus I was in the theater for The Best of Enemies.
Set in Durham, North Carolina, in 1971, The Best of Enemies chronicles the struggle over the integration of the city’s schools. If you are keeping score at home, you might be saying to yourself: “Wait, I thought school segregation was ruled unconstitutional in 1954 with the Brown v. the Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas decision?” To which I would reply that theoretically you are correct, and that you need to find yourself a different hobby. Additionally I would tell you that you are underestimating the ideological power of the Jim Crow South, though 1971 was on the back side of its power. The point being is that any time people hold on to power as whites did in the South, they are often loathe to give it up. This film was a testament to that fact.
In this struggle, The Best of Enemies focuses on the relationship between Ann Atwater (Taraji P. Henson) and C. P. Ellis (Sam Rockwell) as representatives, respectively, of the black and white communities. They both come from organizing traditions, with Atwater’s political activism efforts to get better treatment for African Americans and Ellis building involvement in the Ku Klux Klan. What brings these two polar opposites together in the greater Durham area is the issue of school integration. Both think they are on the side of right, with the Klan saying it best when they proclaimed that they are “Fighting the good fight.” For African Americans, they had Atwater showing up, “Black and angry.”
Of course, in the end, only one side can be right. Unequivocally speaking, it is wrong to exclude anyone for any reason on the basis of something so arbitrary as the color of their skin. Even the most committed Klan member like Ellis, when exposed to the truth of the matter for long enough, will ultimately come to see the absurdity of such ideas. And if they do not, then you have the tragedy of something like World War II.
As with Hotel Mumbai last week, the turning point in The Best of Enemies comes with prayer, which came in the form of song, Gospel. As I said last week, when you sing you pray twice. And both situations needed that double dose of heavenly imploring. Of course, it was Atwater’s intervention in helping with the Ellis’ special needs child that pushed things along as well. But it was his witnessing of the Gospel music that was the moment when Ellis finally saw that the differences between the two races were of the least importance. And all on the basis of Faith. The culminating scene comes when Ellis gives the deciding vote in favor of school integration and symbolically tears up his Klan card.
The last thing I would remind my readers is that the Klan hated Catholics too, but that was not the point of The Best off Enemies. Maybe Reverend Joseph (Charles A. Black) was a priest, but Hollywood never has seemed to be able to portray a Christian man of the cloth without making him look like a Catholic priest. At any rate, it was a good film.