If you loved Green Book, think mayonnaise is too spicy, and think Beto O’Rourke might be “too ethnic” to vote for, then do we have a movie for you. The Best of Enemies tells the based-on-a-true-story of the integration of Durham, NC public schools in 1971, focusing on the two heads of a citizen task force, civil rights activist Ann Atwater (Taraji P. Henson) and local KKK leader C.P. Ellis (Sam Rockwell) and the friendship they develop while learning to overcome prejudice and. . . barf.
It’s 2019 and we have a movie where we’re being asked to root for the Klansman. Look, you can make this movie. But you just can’t make it this way. This is the powerful story of a strong black woman and the community she advocated for. But their story of liberation should not be told with the point of view of an avowed racist. This is not only a problem of storytelling, but of fact.
And that fact is this: racism is not some character flaw. It’s not something that backwards, hateful people learn that can be just un-learned if the objects of their oppression are just nicer to them, putting the burden of solving racism on the backs of the oppressed rather than the oppressors. Racism is a system, not a personal flaw. Racism is the system that made “separate but equal” the law. And racism is the system which allows a story of black liberation to be told from a white point of view by white filmmakers.
Cozy Racism Stories
This film is another in a growing subgenre I like to call “Cozy Racism Stories.” Taken from the idea of the “cozy mystery” subgenre, cozy racism stories are similar in that they are both sanitized of the gory details to spare the sensibilities of the viewing audience. A cozy racism story also will also usually include one or more of the following:
- Focus on a white character and their journey learning to be less racist or learning about racism (especially if the main character is a “white savior”)
- Set in the past, especially in the Civil Rights Era
- Set in the South
- Written / directed by white people
By setting the cozy racism story in the past, and only in the South, we lie about the insidious nature of racism. It lets us pretend everything is ok today. Films that tackle racial issues but aren’t cozy racism stories (eg, they’re doing it right) include films like Fruitvale Station, BlackKklansman, The Hate U Give, and Black Panther.
Does your movie show racism but then show how racism affects white people? Then you might have a cozy racism story. Throughout our story we see how burdened white people are when dealing with racism– a white woman’s home gets shot up because she has a black boyfriend, a white business owner is hassled because he has black employees, another white woman is harassed by the KKK, Mr. Ellis’s business loses customers for siding with the black community. And yet almost never do we actually see the impacts of racism on the black community. You hear it described– but you never see it or experience it in the way film can make you experience it.
I’m glad Mr. Ellis saw the light and gave up his Klan leadership to help Durham schools. But, as archival footage shown during the credits illustrate, it did not stop him being racist.
This is a textbook cozy racism story, and Hollywood needs to stop with this. Movies like this only exist for one reason: to assuage white guilt and make white audiences feel better about racism and “how far we’ve come.” When we have Klansmen marching in the streets and the President of the United States calling them “very fine people on both sides,” when we have an explosion of white supremacist groups, when we have white supremacists stockpiling weapons and planning attacks on the media and members of Congress for their skin color, we have not come far enough.
Even if it didn’t have all of that problematic material, it’s also just not a great film. It clocks in at 133 minutes and feels a half hour longer. It is padded and it is boring. No doubt, Avengers: Endgame will feel much easier to sit through.
Perhaps the biggest shame is how it wastes the talents of its incredible cast. Sam Rockwell and Taraji P. Henson deserve better. So do supporting cast members like John Gallagher, Jr and Anne Heche. Everyone is trying so hard, but this material is just terrible.
This story deserves to be told. There is an important lesson here about how a vile racist learned that “if you can convince the lowest white man he’s better than the best colored man, he won’t notice you’re picking his pocket. Hell, give him somebody to look down on, and he’ll empty his pockets for you.” But his journey should be secondary to black activists charting their own liberation and taking back their power to get what’s rightfully theirs. I’m glad to have learned about what a force of nature Annie Atwater was. I hope someday soon she can get a film more worthy of the work she did, and not just the “I was once nice to a racist” part.
1 1/2 out of 5 stars