‘The Best of Enemies’ Shows Real Faith and Racial Reconciliation Through the True Story of a KKK Leader and a Black Activist

Sam Rockwell, left, and Taraji P. Henson, right, star in “The Best of Enemies.” Photo courtesy of Astute Films

In a darkened North Carolina parking lot, an angry black woman waves her Bible in the face of an equally angry, shotgun-wielding white man who has just told her his weapon speaks for him.

“This here does the talking for me,” she shouts in the new film, “Best of Enemies.” “Same God made you, made me!”

Not the most promising start for a buddy movie. And definitely not what Hollywood screenwriters mean when they say their protagonists “meet cute.”

Set in Durham in 1971, before the erstwhile textile and tobacco factory town became overshadowed by Duke University, the movie spotlights a dramatically unlikely — but nonetheless true — pairing: a local Ku Klux Klan leader named C.P. Ellis and Ann Atwater, a black community activist and single mother.

Through their friendship and shared Christian faith, the two demonstrated the possibility of reconciliation in the midst of a traumatic school integration controversy.

Based on Osha Gray Davidson’s 2007 book, “The Best of Enemies: Race and Redemption in the New South,” the film opens nationwide April 5 and stars Academy Award nominee and “Empire” star Taraji P. Henson as Atwater and Academy Award winner Sam Rockwell as Ellis. Anne Heche plays Ellis’ wife, Mary.

“The Best of Enemies” film poster.
Image courtesy of Astute Films

The film is firmly in the feel-good, “uplifting” movie genre – complete with a “Green Book”-ish resolution.

But while “The Green Book” featured what some African-Americans criticized as yet another cinematic “white savior,” the human savior in “Best of Enemies” is Atwater, a powerful black woman.

Despite its Best Picture Oscar, “The Green Book” also stirred controversy for inaccuracies pointed out by the family of its now-deceased African-American hero. By contrast, “The Best of Enemies” has the indisputable virtue of being accurate to both characters’ and their families’ recollections.

At the film’s premiere earlier this month in Durham, Henson said she was in awe of Atwater, who died in 2016.

“Ann was able to put her differences aside and see C.P. Ellis as a human,” the actress told the Duke Chronicle. “She was able to tap into his heart, and by doing that, she changed his heart.”

On the red carpet outside the restored Carolina Theatre in downtown Durham, Henson told a television reporter that the story of Atwater and Ellis was “a living testimony of love winning.”

And faith played a key role.

This odd couple bonded during an experimental 10-day encounter event between a group of black and white North Carolinians, held at a local junior high school. Funded by a federal grant and administered by the North Carolina AFL-CIO, Durham’s “community summit” on racial reconciliation was styled after the problem-solving seminars known as “charettes.” This style of seminar derives its name from its origin among French architects.

The two longtime antagonists were thrown together as the co-chairs of the charette, which was dubbed “S.O.S.” for “Save Our Schools.”

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Source: Religion News Service