Even the simplest things can ruin a movie, or at least cause a ridiculous amount of distraction.
Take “The Best of Enemies,” for example. It’s meant to be a film that teaches us that even the most hateful of hearts can be changed. It should show us that all races are the same. Black and white are nothing more than a different shade of skin. Powerful moments like that should be the main takeaway, right?
Instead, I found myself staring at Taraji P. Henson’s chest every time she was on screen.
I know how that sounds, so let me explain. I couldn’t figure out why her chest was hanging near her belly button. I knew they weren’t real, but I couldn’t figure how a historical drama based on a true story could go so wrong. I’ll get back to the two sagging hacky sacks in a second.
Henson plays civil rights activist Ann Atwater in 1971 Durham, North Carolina. She’s fighting for affordable housing and proper living conditions for the city’s black citizens. When a black elementary school catches fires, she must battle for something more historic as the city’s corrupt council considers integrating the district’s schools.
Sam Rockwell plays white supremacist C.P. Ellis. He’s the head of the local Ku Klux Klan, aka the “Grand Cyclops,” and he’s pretty vile. He flings the n-word around like he’s a Southern mama saying “bless your heart.” He won’t even shake a black man’s hand. As you’d expect, he’s also firmly opposed to integrating Durham schools.
When the City Council votes that the displaced children can still attend their smoky school, the NAACP steps in, forcing the town to come to a new conclusion. Bill Riddick (Babou Ceesay) is brought into organize a charrette, which pulls the city’s black and white leaders together as they debate, discuss and evaluate school integration. The charrette’s senate — six white and six black citizens — will vote yay or nay on integration, and their word is final.
You might have heard the phrase “white savior,” which applies to films that focus on a white character saving the day, coming to the rescue, or just being the hero in a black person’s story. Think “The Blind Side,” “Green Book” or “The Help.” Even my beloved “Hidden Figures” suffers from a bit of the same complex.
“The Best of Enemies” has a lot of those issues. Henson may have top billing in the film, but Rockwell is the focus. The film delves into his story. We meet his wife, Mary (Anne Heche), and his four children. His son, Larry (Kevin Iannucci), is in a facility for people with special needs. A good chunk of C.P.’s story is dedicated to the efforts he makes toward creating a better world for his son, his fights for a private room, his anger whenever someone calls his son a name. He’s a devoted dad. At least to that child. C.P.’s other two sons are only seen in one scene, and his daughter isn’t really utilized either because only Larry is a good plot device.
A lot of time is spent exploring C.P.’s motivations. We learn he’s a man who feels strongly about the military. He loves his family more than anything and respects his wife’s decision to not support the Klan’s mission. He feels shame when Ann’s daughter looks at him in revulsion. We see his panic and fear when Larry reacts badly to a new roommate. Over and over, we’re given insight into how C.P. feels.
And then there’s Ann. Roughhouse Annie, as she’s called. We see her yell. A lot. We see her viciously attack a spare rib in a cafeteria. She insults C.P. when Mary comes to call on her. She sits spread eagle. We may get to explore C.P.s feelings, but over and over, we only get to see Ann glare, yell or insult people.
And then there are the breasts. Apparently, Henson wanted her character modeled after Tyler Perry’s Madea. You know, the caricature of a black woman that’s loud, proud and has a large chest that hangs a little low. Henson has a smaller frame than the real-life Atwater, so some adjustments needed to be made. An almost-comical set of breasts was not what she needed. Just so you know, I Googled pictures of the real Ann, and no, they did not hang that low.
And, those breasts are indicative of this film’s flaws. A character’s appearance and attributes should never be their most distinguished personality traits. Actions and dialogue should reveal their inner feelings and thoughts, dreams and fears, strengths and weaknesses. Characters should be less like Ann and more like C.P. Anything less shortchanges the characters, conflicts and narrative, in general.
“The Best of Enemies” is meant to tell the story of how these two people overcame their differences to become lifelong friends. Instead, we never truly know what changed C.P.’s heart. We witness his growth, but Ann’s story is never truly told, and that’s a shame. This could have been a powerful movie, but instead, it’s overshadowed by costume choices and a lackluster story.