You’re going to learn a new word today, because I learned that new word last night at a screening of “The Best of Enemies.”
It is “charrette,” a French word applied to crunch-time, deadline-conscious group problem solving. And that’s what was tried in 1971 in Durham, N.C., an exercise in tough, sometimes unpleasant grass roots democracy that brought two polar opposites to the negotiating table in search of ways to bridge a vast cultural divide — back then, it was the fight over school integration.
You think this engaging, inspiring and important movie about a little known piece of Civil Rights history has something to say to Divided America in 2019? Me, too.
They called her “Roughhouse Annie.” Ann Atwater was a divorced mother of two who didn’t just gripe about the plight of black folks in general and single mothers like herself in segregated, bullhead Durham. She got involved, and nagged the dickens out of others to join her haranguing the racist city council. The lady was not one to mince words.
“Get your ass down to City Hall tonight! I’d BETTER see your face lookin’ Black and ANGRY!”
Casting the formidable Taraji P. Henson as Atwater takes no stretch of the imagination.
In a city where the Klan and the White Citizen’s Council were used by politicians to protect slumlords, unequal schools and white supremacy, Atwater was their tireless foe, a fury given to shouting down dismissive council members, and spinning the most racist member around in his chair when he made it a point of not looking at her when she spoke.
“We’re humans,” she bellows, exhausted from stating the obvious. “Humans shouldn’t have to LIVE like this.”
C.P. Ellis wasn’t just a good ol’boy who ran a local Pure filling station and garage. He was the Exalted Cyclops, an activist leader in charge of the local Ku Klux Klan chapter, recruiting Young Klan and leading them in “the good fight,” as and his co-believers saw it, fighting “the communists, N—-rs and Jews” as “part of something bigger than yourself.”
Sam Rockwell has done well with drawling racists in the past (an Oscar for “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri”) and he’s spot-on as Ellis, a swaggering diehard/blowhard who keeps a shotgun in his Ford trunk and a big folding knife on the belt of the pants he hitches up high, for extra security.
Speaking from childhood experience, one couldn’t drive through Jesse Helms’ North Carolina in that era without passing scores of tobacco barns with “KKKK” (“Knights of the Ku Klux Klan”) painted on the side facing the road, advertising for a terrorist group that was a big part of Southern life and Southern politics.
A local woman is dating a black man? Grab your guns, Floyd (Wes Bentley), let’s go shoot up her house — with her IN IT — and train a couple of Klan Youth we bring along for the ride.
But the tide of history was turning, even if the large and active Durham Klan couldn’t see it. That’s when an electrical fire at the battered local “black school” brought Durham’s racial divide to the fore and the mendacious, mediocre status quo protected by the council president (Bruce McGill, also on-the-nose) into the spotlight.
The choices are to integrate the already under-funded, underwhelming schools, or let black kids fall further behind. The city was never going to make the right choice, and the judge the NAACP files suit with is desperate for a buck-passing solution.
That’s how they bring in the skeptical Shaw University professor Bill Riddick, given a patient-when-he-should-be-exasperated turn by Babou Ceesay of TV’s “Into the Badlands.” He will do this “charrette” thing he’s been demonstrating in cities, mostly in the North. He will sign up two co-chairs, leaders of their respective communities.
He will listen to the spit-spattering outrage, and find one “good” thing to focus on, as positive reinforcement in turning the most dogmatic. He will get the Civil Rights agitator and the KKK kingpin on board to legitimize this deadline-driven form of problem solving, bridging a racial divide that goes back centuries in just 10 days.
Mr. won’t-serve-black-customers, refuses-to-shake-hands “Not gonna have’em kids’n OUR school” and Miss “I am NOT gon’work with that CRACKER!” get the same sales pitch.
“If you truly represent your people, represent them!”
Producer (“Seabiscuit,” “Free State of Jones”) turned writer-director Robin Bissell packs in a lot of detail in this narrative; chilling scenes of Klan intimidation, Klan target practice and backdoor communications between the militant racists and politicians depressing examples of the state of Black life in the South in the 1970s — unsafe schools, lack of opportunity hemming people in on all sides.
The overarching message, voiced by Riddick, echoed by others and hammered home in the film is “Once you listen to the other side,” make an effort to get to know your “enemy,” you’re changed. As are they.
That’s what makes “The Best of Enemies” timely. But the history, of the last open era when white supremacy was a viable political stance, of the informal “rules” that kept “them in their place,” is just as valuable.
Bissell has made a film where the casting isn’t the only thing that’s “on-the-nose.” The message, where the film’s sympathies lie and its emphasis on the character with the bigger journey to make could earn it some “Green Book” styled blowback.
But if you don’t think we need to hear this sermon, you’re not paying attention. If you don’t think “reasonable” voices (Anne Heche, sporting a comically anachronistic haircut, is Mrs. Ellis, who supports her husband’s Klan activities but has the common sense to see they’ll go broke if he doesn’t “start sellin’ to the OTHER half of Durham”) are too easily drowned-out in divided, trying times, you’ve abandoned hope.
Bissell makes hope the currency of “The Best of Enemies.” It’s a clarion call to action, to getting involved, to “represent,” to listen and to talk. And for a lecture on the utility of a charrette, a civics lesson in grassroots everybody-engaged democracy, it’s damned entertaining.
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for thematic material, racial epithets, some violence and a suggestive reference
Cast: Taraji P. Hensen, Sam Rockwell, Babou Ceesay, Wes Bentley, Bruce McGill and Anne Heche
Credits: Written and directed by Robin Bissell, based on an Osha Gray Davidson book. An STX release.
Running time: 2:15