The Best of Enemies (2019)
PG-13, mainly for racial slurs. While I was watching it, I kept noticing that this seemed like the most family friendly expose of racism. Then there is one scene. On the grand scale of really intense film moments, it probably isn't even a blip. But I'm not going to downplay a moment of sexual assault. It is in the film and it is definitely an escalation in the movie. PG-13 probably seems pretty accurate.
DIRECTOR: Robin Bissell
It's another of those situations where I'm writing about a movie that I've already written about this week. My goal? Try not to be too repetitive. It's almost 1:00 am. I kind of want to talk how the sausage is made because I want to explain how I go into certain films. I hadn't heard of The Best of Enemies as of three weeks ago. I've been writing for Catholic News Agency for over a year. The old directive was to write what I want with a Catholic focus. If something got rejected, that's the way that the cookie crumbled. Fairly recently, a PR firm read one of the reviews I published on Captain Marvel, so they have been asking me to review certain movies. I don't really get paid any differently, but I do get to get passes for advanced showings. This works really nicely for me because A) I don't have to come up with content and try to figure out what a Catholic audience would like to read about and B) I actually have time to plan and write a good article instead of rushing something on a Friday night in the hopes that my editor sees it in time for the weekend. But when I get an assignment, I do a little bit of legwork and find out some stuff. Honestly, if I hadn't gotten those screener tickets, I probably wouldn't have seen this movie. But boy, I'm glad I saw it.
Movies about racism seem to bring up a binary result. I like one of these results. (I'm going to continue to be cryptic about this whole thing.) The bulk of movies that address racism is kind of made with good intention. They seem to be reminding us about the dangers of racism, but treat it like a victory or something. Most "white savior" movies kind of fall into this category. They seem to imply that we have beaten racism. It could come back, but only if we let our guard down. I honestly don't love these movies. Most people adore these films. They are feel good films. The audience identifies with the progressive white family or the put upon minority in the film and scoffs at the evil, over-the-top racists in the film. Watch the Seth Meyers skit, "White Savior" if you have any questions. The second is a far more scathing view of society. While it may take place in another era, it is clearly a commentary on the ills of today. If you have seen any Spike Lee movie, you can see where I'm going with that. I tend to lean that direction pretty hard. I find the feel-goodery movies really problematic. I thought that The Best of Enemies belonged in the former category. The more I think about it, it oddly might be the movie that tries doing a little bit of both. It might be the rare movie that fits in both categories. The way it is shot, honest to Pete, reminds of of Remember the Titans and Green Book. I think we have a pretty clear template of what Civil Rights era racism looks like on film. We know our tropey characters and archetypes and we can instantly jump to attention in terms of expectations. In terms of structure, the movie definitely feels like it should fit in the first category. But the timing of this movie is definitely reminding us of the second. I think many of fans of the second category are going to hate this movie. I can even see why. It dances around a troubling message that could be detrimental to a movement. But in that way it is really gutsy.
My co-host on Literally Anything is all about watching neo-Nazis get punched. (I swear, this is a new article. Please don't shut me down.) I told him that I was going to see this movie. I showed him the trailer and he gave me the big ol' "nope." His argument, which made a ton of sense, is that we have been bred to tolerate racism. Tolerating intolerance breeds more intolerance. And that made sense to me. For the sake of this article, I'm going to pretend that this was the first time I had heard this argumentation. I go back and forth on this philosophy. We studied oxymoron last week in class and down the list, I saw "militant pacifist." That might define me. I try to avoid violence in every situation. I don't understand violence. I think it makes everything worse. But I also get the idea that being nice to racists in the hopes that they change is a poor philosophy. The Best of Enemies really implies that racists and the victims of racism should be friends. What Henson was fighting for was that you can't fix a racist by being nice to him. Well, the movie apparently has the same attitude. I love this so much. Maybe I'm being overly nice to the movie because I dodged a moral bullet pretty hard. Very rarely do any character treat each other nicely. The closest thing that happens in the movie that could be considered nice is more along the lines of humane. Ann Atwater sacrifices her time to help C.P. Ellis not because C.P. Ellis deserves it. Rather, she sympathizes with a third party related to Ellis and can put aside her animosity toward him to help a third party. Yeah, it seems like I'm splitting hairs a little bit. But it is a very important hair. If the message of the movie was to be nice to each other, it has been said before and it oversimplifies the power of bigotry. But I can't stand how we've gotten as a culture. Here's my soapbox. I get preachy and I find myself getting preachier every day. I'm sorry to everyone who reads my stuff. I hear myself too and I'm sympathetic to the fact that I am obsessed with my own philosophy. But people don't listen anymore. I sound like Andy Rooney, God rest his soul. But no one budges any more. I used to be a hardcore Republican and now I'm probably left of center. That doesn't seem like a huge move, but it is affecting my life all the time. Friends don't really listen to me. They think that I'm nuts. I know that there was a pretty big divide during the Bush Jr. administration, but I don't know if we can ever get better under Trump. People hate each other, guys. This movie is calling it as it sees it. The Klan is back and they don't even know that they are the Klan. People are asking for help left and right and are being told to shut up. And this is happening on both sides. Every political argument that happens is someone asking to be heard and, instead, that person just gets attacked. I suppose to a certain extent, I'm guilty of this too. I have found myself shaking with anxiety and fear that people who I thought were bastions of reason and morality saying absolutely horrible things about entire demographics of people. It's really bad out there.
And the thing about punching Nazis? It isn't fixing anything. We have just been hating each other more. Ann Atwater might be the patron saint of political discourse. In the film, Taraji P. Henson plays her as brusque and intense. She fights for her ideals and doesn't seem to care who gets steamrollered in the process. (Okay, she doesn't sacrifice people to her politics. ) But if she fights someone, she's going to go for the jugular. Both sides are infamous for not listening and fighting tooth and nail. Admittedly, both sides act very differently in their fight. Atwater uses her words, but uses them like sledgehammers to the face. Ellis, played by Sam Rockwell, has that "good ol' boy" mentality. He says the most awful things in a calm voice, not allowing himself to get worked up. Unlike Atwater, his words are often accompanied by actions. As the president of the Klan, he has people fight his battles for him. It probably gives him a sense of distance from the actions he is asking for. But all this is a real story about Bill Riddick. Bill Riddick, played by Babou Ceesay, is the third name on the bill. It's odd, because the reason that everything happens is because of Riddick. If we were defining our protagonists and antagonists, Riddick has the most focused goal. The change at the end is brought about by his actions. Atwater wants integration. Ellis wants segregation. But these characters were at a standstill before Riddick. This movie, honestly, should have had Riddick at its centerpiece. He had the most Herculean task of the entire film. (Wait, more important than civil rights?) Riddick has a desired outcome that he's not allowed to influence. There are times that he encroaches on that goal. His goal is to get two very volatile groups to sit down and talk to each other. Think of the moral weight on his shoulders. There's a very real chance that he could only bolster the Klan's influence in the Durham area in 1971. He could roll back what little progress this city has accomplished with his actions. But he still fights because of the potential for real change. It's so interesting because I'm teaching John Lewis's March with my American Lit class. (I choose to capitalize it.) March makes me realize that while MLK was the big guy we all remember, Civil Rights (again) wouldn't be a thing if it wasn't for all of the other tactics that would have happened simultaneously. It's nice to think that one person could make a difference and that's probably true. But it takes one person to fight his own battle while another fights his or her battle somewhere else. Atwater, by herself, would not have brought about integration. But Atwater and Riddick fighting their own battles, often in opposition, is what really could have brought about real change.
In terms of filming, the movie is a bit safe for my liking. Again, my racially charged movie for the year was BlacKkKlansman. I don't like when movies take the easy route. But The Best of Enemies is fighting a very specific battle. I don't know if this went into the directors mind when it was being made. Maybe it was the best movie that he could make. I don't know. I can't read minds. But the movie has to be appealing for everyone. If you are going to change minds, you have to make the movie palatable. Going back to category one, do you know why those movies exist? They make a ton of money. They are entertaining and make people feel good about themselves. You know what happens with category two? People get mad. I get mad. But they are hardcore confirmation bias movies. (I suppose the first category is too.) But the people who are already motivated see those movies. The Best of Enemies is a movie that is entertaining and it feels safe. That's the best situation for a movie like that. We don't feel like we're being lectured to. But I will tell you right now. This movie is lecturing you hard. You can laugh and you can cry and you can relate. Get those emotions out, but you are being influenced in a way that should matter. I talked about this in my other other article, so I don't want to tread on that too much, but it's a bummer that Ellis was in the Klan. (For multiple reasons, I suppose.) It's a true story and I don't know how Hollywood'ed up it got. But Ellis being in the Klan makes him...too bigoted. Most movies do a solid job of vilifying the Klan...with the exception of Birth of a Nation. But I really wish that Ellis was more relatable. I suppose that the movie does do a good job of humanizing him. It shows why he has made all these bigoted choices without making those choices too sympathetic. But I wanted to have more nuance. That's what it is. But for a movie that normally gets dinged in a direction against itself, I think it is a far better movie than people give it credit for. The Rotten Tomatoes score isn't great. It isn't terrible. It's just not as good as I'm making it out to be. I think the movie is pretty solid. I want people to watch it. But I also know that people don't listen...
...which is the message of the film. Bummer.
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Film is great. It can challenge us. It can entertain us. It can puzzle us. It can awaken us.
Mr. H has watched an upsetting amount of movies. They bring him a level of joy that few things have achieved.