Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (July 18, 2019)
Inspired by real events, 2019’s The Best of Enemies takes us to Durham, North Carolina circa 1971. In that setting, Ann Atwater (Taraji P. Henson) campaigns for civil rights in a setting hostile toward the advancement of African-Americans.
This leads Ann to butt heads with locals. In particular, she comes up against CP Ellis (Sam Rockwell), the leader of the local Ku Klux Klan chapter.
In 1971, the elementary dominated by African-American students burns, so these kids need a new facility. Ann pushes toward integration, and inevitably, Ellis and others resist.
When a court decrees that integration will occur, both Ann and Ellis serve on a commission to work out the issues. This leads the pair of antagonists to cooperate, whether they like it or not.
Normally a “serious” film like Enemies would come out in the fall, as that release date would give it a better shot at Oscar consideration. Perhaps Universal felt so confident in the film’s potential that they figured its early April debut wouldn’t damage its prospects.
Or maybe the studio figured the end product wouldn’t receive awards attention no matter when it hit screens, so they might as well put it out whenever they wanted. That impulse feels correct, as Enemies received consistently mediocre reviews.
Which the film deserves. While well-meaning and more than watchable, Enemies fails to become anything more than a serviceable drama about race relations.
When Enemies succeeds, it does so due to its cast. In particular, Henson and Rockwell bring heft to their roles and make them more effective than otherwise become the case.
Unfortunately, they get stuck with a fairly trite script, one that follows an uncomfortable trend common among dramas of this sort. It seems like too many too these films focus more on the white characters and leave the black roles gasping for air.
Granted, some of that becomes inevitable since Ellis needs to walk a longer path than Ann does. Although she must shed some of her prejudices, she lacks the vile hate of her white counterpart, so she goes through fewer changes.
Still, Enemies leaves Ann on the sidelines too often. When she does appear, she often feels like she exists mainly to facilitate Ellis’s journey, not to develop her own persona.
In addition, Enemies works too hard to soften Ellis ahead of his transformation, as we see some family elements that force the audience to sympathize with him fairly early in the story. It feels odd to complain about depth in a character, but this comes across as a misfire because it adds a premature layer of warmth to the role that doesn’t suit it.
Really, it’s the movie’s choice to focus so much on Ellis that remains the biggest problem, though, and it also tends to avoid true confrontation of core issues. Ellis goes down a predictable journey populated with predictable challenges that wrap up in a predictable place.
Of course, I can’t feel too upset with a movie that shows how a vicious bigot can grow. God knows that in the current atmosphere, we need more tales of cooperation among people of different ethnicities.
I just wish Enemies avoided the trite traps into which it falls and gave us something more bracing and ambitious. The film brings us an uplifting tale that simply feels too simplistic and cliché in the end.