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the best of enemies felt hollow to me from the opening screen thats supposedly durham, nc in the 1970s. durham is a city that has been greatly impacted by duke university, white supremacy, the tobacco industry and several african-american institutions including, but not limited to, the north carolina mutual life insurance company, whats now known as north carolina central university, and a black wall street. yet in the best of enemies durham is portrayed as some sort of backwater town. durham wouldnt have looked that small even in the 1970s. blame the production for being cheap enough to settle with georgia for filming purposes instead.
atwater has a fascinating history fighting against poverty and housing injustices. shes certainly worthy of a movie in her own right. but the best of friends is a hollywood studio movie, and one that spends more time trying to humanize c.p. ellis before the durham charrette than to show atwater do more than lead operation breakthrough marches and yell at people. (keep in mind ellis left the klan after the charrette. this movie shows you a klansman at home, at work at his gas station, and with his disabled son alongside exactly one shot of him shooting up some white womans house set to roy orbisons “blue bayou” before the charrette.) the best of enemies is not considered a white savior-style movie like driving miss daisy, green book, or even hidden figures (a movie that taraji p. henson starred in before the best of enemies), but its close to one. but getting back to atwater; given most movies and documentaries about martin luther king, jr. tend to downplay or ignore his socialism and advocacy for the poor, an honest biopic about atwater with a focus on her life past the durham charrette feels like it would be rejected for some tentpole movie at a large studio.
there also isnt a lot of insight into why the charrette happened. you dont get a sense of how slow integration was past 1955 for so many non-university schools, and especially in the south. you dont get how dangerous it was for some people to consider going to integrated schools past a firebombing scene in this movie that lasts, what, around two minutes? instead, this movie has a lot of scenes where ellis talks to klansmen and other racists, time better spent actually investigating why the charrette happened. these racists dont commit hate crimes and terrorist acts against non-white people and known non-christian people because this movie doesnt know or is scared to show what racist actions against those groups of people look like. but they sure love saying the n word! (and they say it a lot.)
for me, the music, like the aforementioned “blue bayou” or a weird, chopped up version of bill withers “grandmas hands” played over a gospel performance sequence (before ellis stops by a later gospel performance that isnt muted for another song) is the star of this movie. (that latter scene is actually based on ellis being moved by gospel music during the charrette, but its badly done here.) its partially because a lot of these songs are so much better than this movie, even when theyre slotted in awkwardly in certain scenes. its mostly because the performances from henson and sam rockwell are forgettable. and the less said about hensons awful fat suit that makes her look nothing like the real atwater, the better.
the best of enemies embodies the laziest of hollywood movies that tackle race. hiring actors that dont look like the people theyre supposed to play. assuming the american south before the 1980s looked like small groupings of houses without a single skyscraper in sight. assuming there was no african-american culture in american southern cites. focusing on white characters way more than non-white characters. we dodged a bullet when this movie tanked during its theatrical run and didnt go on a green book-style awards run.
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