The Best of Enemies Parent Guide
A superb film about the power of communication and empathy to overcome even the deepest divides.
Parent Movie Review
The Best of Enemies is the 50-year-old, ripped-from-the-headlines, true story of Ann Atwater (Taraji P. Henson), a civil rights activist, and C.P. Ellis (Sam Rockwell), President of the local Ku Klux Klan chapter, and their fight over school integration in Durham, North Carolina. After a fire destroys the African-American elementary school in 1971, civil rights activists, including Atwater, sue for school integration. The decision process is transformed into a charrette (a debate where many stakeholders come together to solve challenging problems), orchestrated by professional mediator Bill Riddick (Babou Ceesay). The charrette becomes a crucible of confrontation and change, with Atwater and Ellis as pivotal and symbolic enemies.
Opposing members of the community spend time with each other during the charrette, and the effect on participating members varies dramatically. For some it confirms their deepest prejudices and fears, and for others it becomes transformative. The final decision is made by a group of twelve voters with representatives from several factions in the community. The movie focuses on the battle for those votes between Atwater and Ellis, and their own personal struggle to keep talking to each other, despite their extreme ideological differences.
The film is not for young children. And possibly not young teens. True to the time and place, racial slurs abound, and while I tried to keep track of how frequently the N-word was used, I’m sure I miscounted, since it slipped into almost every conversation. In addition to a few other minor expletives, the language of the film - and I mean the content of the language - is at times very difficult to listen to. Racist attitudes, expressions, judgments, and stereotypes proliferate throughout the film. Violence is not as bad as I expected, though guns are brandished and even shot into a house. However, there is one very upsetting scene where a woman is assaulted “Trump Access Hollywood” style. While the actual assault takes place out of frame, the characters’ upper bodies can be seen, and it is very clear what is happening. Characters occasionally imbibe, and spend time in a bar, but it is background to the action and story.
So why, with such terrible language and a fairly violent assault, would this movie receive such a high grade? Because it is very well done, and alarmingly relevant. Both Taraji P. Henson and Sam Rockwell excel in their portrayals of these complicated, real life characters. What is amazing about the movie, and this story, was the ability of these people to communicate with each other and meet each other where they were. I think that’s something we have lost today. It’s inspiring, and frankly, jaw-dropping: if the president of a KKK chapter, and an African American woman who has been terrorized and abused by institutionalized racism her whole life can work together and affect change, then perhaps we can as well. I cannot recommend this movie strongly enough for every adult and older teen who wants to learn more about segregation and the history of racism in America. It will change the way you talk to people with whom you disagree, and we need this kind of change. There may be many people who are offended by this film, on both sides of the political spectrum. But it teaches powerful principles of communication, empathy, and change. Go and see for yourself.Directed by Robin Bissell. Starring Sam Rockwell, Taraji P. Henson, and Wes Bentley. Running time: 133 minutes. Theatrical release April 5, 2019. Updated April 17, 2019
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The Best of Enemies
Rating & Content Info
Why is The Best of Enemies rated PG-13? The Best of Enemies is rated PG-13 by the MPAA for thematic material, racial epithets, some violence and a suggestive reference
Violence: A group of men shoot out the entire bottom floor of a house, knowing its occupants are upstairs. Guns are seen, brandished causally, and moved around for protection. One scene takes place at a firing range where young men practice range shooting. A female character is sexually assaulted in her home, while another man stands by with a baseball bat.
Sexual Content: A married couple lies in bed together, and a man tries to cuddle his wife, but his advances are rebuffed. Twice, women can be seen undressing down to underclothes.
Profanity: Constant use of the N-word, and other racial slurs. A handful of mild expletives, and occasional mild sexual expletives.
Alcohol / Drug Use:Characters drink in bar and offer beers to each other in social settings. It is neither favorably, nor unfavorably presented.
Page last updated April 17, 2019
The Best of Enemies Parents' Guide
What did you think about the portrayal of the Ku Klux Klan? Did it offend you? Did you find yourself empathizing for some of the characters you expected to hate?
What can we learn from Bill Riddick’s approach to C.P. Ellis? Did his willingness to suffer Ellis’ blatant racism perhaps lead to the change that took place? Do you think that is possible today, or is the time for allowing people with racist views to be heard over?
If you could hold a charrette for a problem in your life or community, what would it be for? Who would you invite as the stakeholders?
Loved this movie? Try these books…
The Best of Enemies, by Osha Gray Davidson, is the book on which the movie is based.
School integration was a pivotal issue in the civil rights movement. Melba Pattillo Beals wrote her memoir of being one of the first African-American students to integrate Little Rock’s Central High School. She tells her story in Warriors Don’t Cry. Sharon Draper creates a fictional account of the Little Rock school integration crisis in Fire from the Rock, a novel suitable for middle school readers.
Pulitzer-Prize-winning author Toni Morrison has taken on this historical period in Remember: The Journey to School Integration. This oversized book combines archival photographs with fictionalized accounts of the children who lived through this turbulent period.
Parents looking for a book suitable for younger readers can read them The Story of Ruby Bridges by Robert Coles. This six year old’s story of courage, forgiveness and determination can be a powerful inspiration to even little children.
In My Mother the Cheerleader, Robert Sharenow imagines a young girl who watches her mother verbally abuse the African American students attending white schools and who starts to question her racist ideology.
The fight for school integration stretches back beyond the better known battles in the Deep South. In Separate is Never Equal: Sylvia Mendez and Her Family’s Fight for Desegregation, Duncan Tonatiuh tells the story of a Hispanic student in California who is forbidden to enroll in a “white school”. That legal battle ended school segregation in California in 1946. Suitable for middle school readers.
Related home video titles:
Ruby Bridges, produced in 1998, is a production about the battle for school desegregation. In Akeelah and the Bee, an African-American student enters a spelling bee dominated by white contestants. Another story about African-American students, this time in a post-secondary setting, is The Great Debaters.
African-Americans aren’t the only ones to face discrimination in education. Stand and Deliver depicts a teacher who gave up a lucrative career to help Hispanic and other inner-city students in East LA excel in calculus and higher math.