If an Exalted Grand Cyclops of the Ku Klux Klan (yes, that’s a real thing) can denounce his membership and become an advocate for civil rights, then so can you, racist America. The 2019 film The Best of Enemies offers a story of redemption—indeed, the white man’s redemption—through the interactions between the formidable black civil rights activist Ann Atwater and the n-word loving, working-class white man, C.P. Ellis. Although this story centers on the pair’s co-chairing of a charette (a series of ten town hall meetings) in 1971 over desegregation of Durham, North Carolina’s public schools, the film elicits sentiments that ring eerily true to today. Despite this, the film leaves the audience with hope that the confederate flag-loving, “What about my rights?” racist can see the racial equality light. This was needed in 1971 and unfortunately, this is still needed today.
Ann Atwater was a champion for civil rights in Durham her entire life. Growing up poor and being forced to live on welfare to support her two children after her husband had left her (at the age of sixteen), Ann knew what struggle looked like. Her break into activism would occur when community organizers Charsie Hedgepath and Howard Fuller knocked on her door in 1965 and spoke to her about the power of collective action. After they helped her make demands to her landlord about inhospitable conditions in her home, she was hooked. Fuller recruited her for Operation Breakthrough, a program designed to fight poverty in Durham, and she eventually became a supervisor for neighborhood workers and head of the Housing Committee for United Organizations. Historian Christina Greene claims that “by 1967, [Ann] knew more about public housing regulations than most bureaucrats in D.C.” Indeed, the fight for proper housing would dominate her years of activism until her work with C.P. Ellis in the charette.
C.P. Ellis also knew what it was like living poor. His father, a mill worker and member of the KKK, died at the age of forty-eight, which forced a seventeen-year-old Ellis to quit school and work to support his mother and sister. He married young and had four children, including a severely disabled son, and struggled to make ends meet. To the chagrin of his wife who did not like him spending so much time away from home, C.P. claimed he found meaning through his membership in the KKK and eventually became the leader of the Durham faction. He began attending Durham City Council meetings and other public forums in the 1960s to ensure that the voice of the KKK was represented in Durham’s affairs, which would also be the reason he agreed to co-chair the charette with Ann. At these public forums, C.P. often shouted racially charged expletives that blacks are taking over the city and leaving the whites with little for themselves. After one particularly demeaning charge made by C.P. at a City Council meeting, Ann Atwater even lunged at him, knife in hand, intent on drawing blood, but was held back by friends. This scene did not make it into the film.
The potential for bloodshed probably did not bode well for the filmmakers who wanted to emphasize the unlikely interracial bond between a KKK member and a black woman during the fight for civil rights. Ann, played by Taraji P. Henson, is certainly depicted as a strong, militant-minded black woman who backs down to no man, white or black. The opening scene of the film takes us into a white councilman’s office where Ann is fighting on behalf of a soft-spoken single mother who lives in deplorable conditions. The councilman, who does not seem too worried about the situation, concedes that he will write a letter to the landlord to try to remedy the situation and that they should both leave. The young woman starts to get up, but Ann quickly tells her to sit back down and shouts at the councilman, saying that she refuses to leave because a letter is not enough. He then laughs it off and picks up the phone to talk to a colleague. In classic Ann Atwater fashion, she marches over to the councilman’s side of the desk, rips the phone out of his hand, and knocks him on the side of the head with it. The councilman looks at her with a childlike terror on his face, until the head of the Housing Authority, Carvie Oldham, interrupts and tells Ann that she can speak at the upcoming housing meeting. Then, Ann makes the choice to leave. By including this sequence in the opening of the film, the audience is quickly introduced to Ann Atwater’s determination and her militant attitude.
This militancy would come up again when at this meeting, she forces a councilman, who turns his back on her every time she speaks, to look at her by forcefully spinning his chair around and pointing directly at his face, shouting that he will listen to their demands. Like the councilman before, he also looks terrified in the face of an angry Ann Atwater. In the earlier scene, she does not hit the councilman hard with the phone, but a black woman hitting a white man who holds more political power than her is nonetheless striking—and even humorous for the audience. This scene establishes the right amount of physical violence in a comical manner. An inclusion of her knife-wielding lunge at C.P. is deemed too violent for the film and detracting of its message about an unlikely coalition, thus policing Ann’s actions. This forces the film to play into the trope that a black woman can be radical, but not too radical, for a racially mixed audience.
Ann’s scene with the councilman is then juxtaposed with C.P. heading a Klan meeting. The camera is angled up so that the audience feels as if they are also looking up to C.P, played by Sam Rockwell (who also happened to have won an Academy Award for his portrayal of a racist officer in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri). C.P.’s figure is centered in the foreground of the frame with the words “Our Race” and “Our Nation” painted on the top of the wall above him. The way that the camera is angled, though, makes these words appear as if they are placed on his shoulders. In this vein, C.P., the Exalted Cyclops, bears the burden of ensuring that America stays rightfully white. The following scenes also establish the prominent similarity between this civil rights story and contemporary rhetoric about the ascension of Donald Trump and current racial issues. C.P. tells the Youth Corps of the KKK that whites are “an endangered species” and that by joining the Klan, they can become “a part of something bigger than [themselves].”
Post-Trump discourse often speaks to the notion that Trump was able to successfully reach a working-class white audience because he made them feel that they were being heard in a world that was increasingly being dominated by the voices of the “Others.” In 2016, on the eve of the presidential election, The Atlantic featured an article titled, “The Despair of Poor White Americans,” Time claimed “Donald Trump: The Revenge of the White Man,” while The Washington Post wondered “Why Do White Men Love Donald Trump So Much?” In the midst of this discourse, C.P.’s feeling of brotherhood in the KKK as a source of comfort during a time when he feels he is losing his hegemonic status in the U.S. strikes a very similar chord to today. This parallel is also expounded by Trump’s comments after the horrors in Charlottesville, Virginia. At a 2017 “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, white nationalists were met by counter-protesters, and the violence that ensued forced officials to declare a state of emergency. In response, Donald Trump claimed in a press conference that a number of the white nationalists were “some very fine people” and that “you had many people in that group other than neo-Nazis and white nationalists. The press has treated them absolutely unfairly.” Need I remind you that these protesters were chanting “blood and soil,” the English translation of the Nazi slogan down the streets. The Best of Enemies, released in this context, thus reads quite similar to contemporary American events. Like C.P. Ellis, these neo-Nazis were trying to reclaim the white man’s superiority.
Another debate within the film nods to contemporary discourse surrounding the display of the confederate flag. At a meeting, Ellis claims that the confederate flag is a symbol of southern pride. Ann then fires back, “it might be your proud southern history, but it ain’t ours!” The debate about the taking down of confederate statues, street names, and the presence of the confederate flag outside of public buildings is one that many are aware of. To my knowledge, this exchange about the confederate flag between C.P. and Ann did not actually happen, so we can surmise that the film included this scene to make a statement about the memorialization of confederate symbols and debates about how we tell history. Furthermore, this scene serves as a way to align the supporters of such memorialization with the blatant racism of C.P. Ellis.
Later, this scene also implicitly references the Black Lives Matter movement. In attempting to make a reverse racism argument, C.P. claims “you have all your black marches and black events” where white people are not represented. Ann then rolls her eyes at the ridiculousness of his claim. C.P.’s remark that a focus on the lives of black people therefore reduces that of the white man is reminiscent of the “All Lives Matter” response. Feeling that a focus on black lives only—as also represented in C.P.’s statement—is damaging in some way, proponents of the All Lives Matter sentiment do not understand that a focus on black lives does not necessitate a devaluing of others. Ann’s humorous response, then, also nonchalantly dismisses such an argument. By bringing in contemporary discussions on memorialization and Black Lives Matter, and C.P.’s initial thoughts on these themes, the film offers the audience hope that even the most egregious racist can be reborn. In the case of C.P. Ellis, this is with a little help from gospel and a strong black woman.
In reality, C.P. Ellis said that the moment he could transcend his racist views and connect with Ann was when the two expressed common fears for their children. For Ann, though, she has referenced the influence of gospel music on C.P.’s transformation. She claimed that she saw C.P. start to tap his foot when listening to gospel and felt like “they had him” at that point. The film plays with this a little in a scene where C.P., while sitting in his and Ann’s shared office (in which their desks face each other), hears gospel. He tentatively walks out and goes towards the music. He peers into the room, which is filled with mainly African Americans, but a few white participants, standing and clapping along with the music. He slowly walks in, clearly intrigued by the scene but still holding a suspicious expression, and looks at the crowd. Ann turns and sees him, stops clapping, and gives him a neutral expression as if to say that this is the type of community that he so loathes and is fighting against. C.P. returns her look and then decides to leave. Although C.P. does not join in, this is the first moment in the film where the audience sees his interest in black culture and community. The power of music draws him, however temporarily, outside of his racist mindset. He had previously called gospel “n****r” music, so this, for the audience, is the first step in his redemption.
C.P. Ellis claimed in an interview that the connection with Ann was foregrounded in their common experiences with their children. Ann had expressed to C.P. how her children were receiving some backlash at school because of her working with him. Astounded, C.P. claimed that his children too were being harassed. He later described, “I began to see, here we are, two people from far ends of the fence, havin’ identical problems, except her being black and me bein’ white.” C.P. then started weeping, “from that moment on, I tell you, that gal and I worked together good…I began to love the girl, really.” The film does not quite play on this pivotal moment. Instead, Ann’s sympathy for C.P. is represented in her work to place his disabled son in a private room at the psychiatric hospital in which he stays, which is paramount for the son’s comfort. C.P. does not appreciate the help and says that he can take care of his own family. Ann responds with the fact that this is what she does: help people. C.P. has one brief interaction with one of Ann’s daughters in the film. As Ann and C.P. are touring a black elementary school, which had caught fire on one of the floors, the two run into her daughter. C.P. is surprisingly kind and asks how she is. The young girl is friendly until finding out that he is C.P. Ellis. When discussing the scene later with his wife, C.P., in a confused expression, says “She looked at me as if I were a monster,” to which his wife responds, “Do you blame her?” C.P. cannot understand why this child looks at him in such a way. His racism has become so normalized to him that he does not understand how it could impact his meeting of a young girl who does not know him. Furthermore, his response to Ann’s daughter also implies that black children do not elicit hatred or fear in him, which further demonstrates that his fear of desegregation of schools is illogical, or, perhaps, that his transformation is starting to begin.
Despite C.P.’s deplorable racism throughout much of the film, the last day of the charette proves to be the place where he can shine. The charette was actually formed in order to facilitate the transition into desegregation that the Durham federal district court demanded. In the film, however, the charette ends with a vote on whether Durham’s public schools should desegregate or not, rather than focusing on how best to do so as was the case of the real charette. By making desegregation of the schools rely on a vote, the film can tell the best narrative of redemption, and indeed reliance, on C.P. Ellis. Unsurprisingly, the vote on whether Durham’s schools should desegregate rests on C.P.’s vote. Everyone initially assumes what his vote is going to be, but he takes a surprising turn. He begins: I know some will be disappointed with this outcome. [He then shows the crowd his KKK membership card to which a number of the white people in the crowd start cheering.] This has been in my wallet for the last twelve years. I cried when they handed it to me. For the first time, I didn’t feel alone. I was having a hard time taking care of my family. I was a part of something now. Little C.P. as president. I was over the moon. It’s a real brotherhood. Nobody is left behind. Now I got a problem. [There was] a lot of people doing for others during this, and they weren’t just white people. I’m supposed to hate black people. Now if I don’t believe that, I have no business being the president. [He then rips up the card.] I don’t believe that anymore. I vote yes.
After uproar, C.P. leaves the room. Ann goes to look for him but sees him through a window leaving with his family (who were cheering his vote). The film ends with Ann bringing in black business to C.P.’s gas station, which someone had try to set fire to and where he had previously denied service to blacks. Now, the woman he had so detested and whose help he claimed he did not need, he relied upon. The film ends with footage of the real people represented in the film. The final scene is the elderly C.P. and Ann helping each other walk. Here, they are helping each other walk across the room in their old age, but the film has revealed to the audience that this walk was also towards racial equality.
C.P.’s soliloquy in the film did not actually occur, but it does a lot of narrative work for the film. C.P.’s stance at the podium is reminiscent of the beginning shot where he is standing in front of the Klan with “Our Race, Our Nation” flanking his shoulders. Instead of racial purity, though, now the future of Durham’s schools is on the shoulders of C.P. Ultimately, this white man will determine the future of Durham’s black youth. Despite the work of black representatives, C.P. still holds the ultimate power, and receives the most heroic attention, in his brave vote. Of course, he receives much backlash and feels he needs to keep a gun at his bedside but nonetheless, the ability for him to overcome his racism and promote racial equality is supposed to leave an audience marveled. In a divided America, the film proposes that even a former KKK member—or one could say a neo-Nazi marching down the streets of Charlottesville—can change with a little help from his black friends and in doing so, can capture the hearts of all of us.
Unfortunately, Ann Atwater’s years of dedicated work with Operation Breakthrough and other influential neighborhood organizations receives scant attention in the film to make room for the shock value that her eventual friendship with Ellis provides. The Best of Enemies focuses on the unlikely bond between C.P., who later became a union organizer and passed away in 2005 at the age of seventy-eight, and Ann, who maintained her vital role in the Durham community until her death in 2016 at the age of eighty, to memorialize a moment in the civil rights movement where a biracial alliance was forged, and a KKK leader was able to change, through grassroots organizing. The film suggests that history indeed repeats itself and that this alliance is what we can hope for in a divided, Trumpian America. Unfortunately, this results in limitations being set on the telling of Ann Atwater’s story and her impact on the civil rights struggle. Frankly, we would benefit greatly in focusing our civil rights stories more on the Ann Atwaters of the world and less on the Exalted Cyclopses, even if they rip up their membership cards.
References: Osha Gray Davidson. The Best of Enemies: Race and Redemption in the New South. New York: Scribner, 1996. Rosie Gray. “Trump Defends White-Nationalist Protesters: ‘Some Very Fine People on Both Sides,” The Atlantic. August 15, 2017. https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2017/08/trump-defends-white-nationalist-protesters-some-very-fine-people-on-both-sides/537012/. Christina Greene. Our Separate Ways: Women and the Black Freedom Movement in Durham, North Carolina. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2005.