15th Apr2019

‘The Best of Enemies’ Review

by Jak-Luke Sharp

Stars: Taraji P. Henson, Sam Rockwell, Babou Ceesay, Nick Searcy, Wes Bentley, Anne Heche, Bruce McGill, John Gallagher Jr., Nicholas Logan, Gilbert Glenn Brown, Caitlin Mehner | Written and Directed by Robin Bissell

best-enemies-poster

The Best of Enemies is directed by Robin Bissell and follows the intense relationship between Ku Klux Klan president C.P. Ellis and Black Rights activist Ann Atwater played by Academy Award Winner Sam Rockwell and Taraji P. Henson, respectively. Bissell’s film doesn’t necessarily tread new ground in this now saturated genre, albeit much-needed conversation of cultural acceptance. However, The Best of Enemies is a gripping and deeply astonishingly poignant tale that showcases a truly outstanding performance from Taraji P. Henson, who is an absolute powerhouse and steals the entire show with a phenomenal in both a visual and verbal performance.

If you’re going into The Best of Enemies wanting a fresh take on racial tension in America, you’re not necessarily going to get it. A BlackKklansman this is not, unlike helmer Spike Lee, Bissell doesn’t twist or invigorate the narrative he has on offer. If you’ve seen the now-dubbed “white saviour” trends of late in The Help, Hidden Figures etc., you’ve seen the parameters of this tale already, slowly this sub-genre, presumably due to the relevant social issues of the present, being at the height of vile racial tension that is sadly increasing at a massive precedent. Yet, most releases that entertain this certain thread and theme have this predictable string of exonerating villains and evil before the house curtains come down and Bissell’s film is sadly no different.

This specific tale set at the height of racial friction in the 1970s doesn’t have any grit or gravitas, on both sides of the fence. You sadly never truly feel the weight and pain of this tension throughout, only in minor scenes that concentrate on the two families themselves and not the actual townspeople who are living this intensity on a second by second basis, but the film never concentrates its effort on such to explore this specific narrative thread. In this decision, you’re left having to find resonation with the family of abhorrent racist C.P. Ellis or with just Ann Atwater herself, who hasn’t a single thread of depth in this whole piece, nor is her personal or family life in any way on offer. A shocking statement to behold considering the screen presence and gravitas Taraji P. Henson evoke and that her character is undoubtedly on the right side of history. If anything, it implies that writer/director Robin Bissell in his screenplay concentrates more so on wanting his audience to bizarrely find common ground with C.P. Ellis more so than the side they should be focused on. Perhaps this is an effort to try and find some balance considering how evil and vile Ellis and his beliefs truly are, and not to completely shut him out of exoneration, therefore, he can be redeemed for his actions, of which to be historical her was, but the film fails to showcase the horrors that he indulged in.

The performances are terrific. Sam Rockwell as C.P. Ellis gives an engaging and engrossing performance, in a role that to be fair you’re manipulated into resonating emotionally with on a personal level due to the lacking substance on Henson’s Attwater. However, it would be fair to state that Rockwell still has to get that thread over the line, and he does with how he conveys the slow but sure transition from enemy to friend in a form of subtleness in his declaration of physical slight emotions. It is, however, Taraji P. Henson’s film and if anyone was on the fence on her ability, and after What Men Want you’ve undoubtedly got some ammunition on that front, has no legs to stand on with how incredible Henson brings Attwater to life. In fact, I would go so far as to state Henson completely disappears into the role. The screen presence is outlandish and so volatile, keeping with the character tonally with ferocious instinct, you’re so engaged with the arc because not one sequence is ever the same with how loud and proud her personality is. Even then it isn’t just the physical transformation that takes the plaudits, it the range Henson holds. In one scene you’re treated with Attwater firing on all cylinders at judges and officials with a sense of fire and animosity and the next a wonderful intoxicating and noiseless sweetening charm.

The Best of Enemies is in US cinemas now.

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