Today we’re delighted to share a guest post from Osha Gray Davidson, author of The Best of Enemies: Race and Redemption in the New South. The book is a page-turning account of the unlikely friendship between Ann Atwater, an African American activist in Durham, North Carolina, and C. P. Ellis, a local member of the Ku Klux Klan. Osha’s book is now a major motion picture starring Taraji P. Henson and Sam Rockwell in the leading roles. Written and directed by Robin Bissell and distributed by STX Entertainment, the film will premier April 5, 2019.
Watch the exciting trailer here:
UNC Press’s movie tie-in edition of the book is available now for preorder!
“The Best of Enemies,” The Film
I won’t lie. Watching the first trailer for “The Best of Enemies” was nerve-wracking. Of course, there’s the thrill of seeing the story I labored over for years now “up on the big screen.” (Exciting, even when that big screen is a smart phone.) The flip-side is the uncertainty that comes with knowing I wasn’t in control of how the filmed story was told. What if Hollywood got it all wrong?
From the trailer’s opening moments, however, it’s clear that screenwriter-director Robin Bissell got it just right. The trailer is riveting largely because Bissell focuses on the story’s explosive emotional core while anchoring it firmly but unobtrusively in its historical context.
I was relieved but not really surprised. Robin has been working on the film for years, in one way or another. He made multiple trips to Durham, and although C.P. Ellis died in 2005, Robin got to know his family well. He and Ann Atwater also became fast friends before she passed away in 2016.
Robin is also quick to credit the cast’s enormous contribution. Just before filming began, I told Robin that the story was now in his hands. He demurred, pointing out that once the camera began rolling, the story’s essence, the truth about who C.P. Ellis and Ann Atwater were, would be in the actors’ hands. Watching Sam Rockwell and Taraji Henson squaring off in the movie trailer is electrifying. Henson perfectly captures Ann’s righteous fearlessness and Rockwell disappears into C.P.’s tortured soul. (Ann was elated with the casting, telling everyone, “Cookie’s going to play me!” – referring to Henson’s take-no-prisoners character in the hit-series, “Empire.”)
Rockwell makes his nuanced performance look effortless, but he’s a craftsman who sweats the details. While Rockwell was researching the part, he called and asked if I knew anyone who had lived a life like C.P.’s. Luckily, I had just finished reading the harrowing memoir, “White American Youth” by Christian Picciolini, a former white-power skinhead leader, and put them in contact. Rockwell got C.P. so right at least in part because he made the effort to reach out to Picciolini.
As word about the film has spread, many people have commented to me, “This movie is so timely!” There’s too much evidence to argue that point: Charlottesville, with its surreal and chilling tiki-torch parade of white supremacists and neo-Nazis that culminated in the murder of Heather Heyer; voter suppression targeting African Americans on a broad scale; the unjustified police killings of people of color that necessitated the Black Lives Matter movement; the President of the United States’ myriad normalizations of racism. This movie is much-needed now, no doubt. My only problem with an emphasis on “timeliness” is the possible inference that institutionalized racism is somehow new, that it wasn’t just as prevalent twenty-some years ago when the book was first published.
If there’s one feature of American life that proves the truism, “The more things change, the more they remain the same,” it’s the continued existence of institutionalized racism a century and a half after the abolition of chattel slavery. The legacy of white supremacy mocks our ideals of equality and justice for all and divides our nation along racial lines, even though most white Americans believe racism no longer exists on a scale that matters. In fact, institutionalized racism endures precisely because it’s invisible to most white people. The driving force behind institutionalized racism isn’t the naked racists like C.P.; it’s the powerful white demagogues who cloak their appeals to the C.P.s of America with coded language, and, at least as harmful, the “good white people” of all political stripes who believe they are free from the taint of racism and so don’t need to do anything about it. C.P. had one advantage over these good white people: he knew he was racist. Confronted with the truth that he had been used by the power structure, he could choose what to do next. But what about the “non-racists?” If white people don’t recognize their own inherent biases, how can they choose to change? How can they possibly dismantle a discriminatory system they can’t see? It’s simple: they can’t.
Ann and C.P.’s story is important partly because it shines a spotlight on a vast racist structure built of hatred and lies, privilege and punishment, over the course of 400 years. In the end, however, it’s what we choose to do after our eyes are open that matters. And that choice is up to each of us.
Osha Gray Davidson is a journalist and author most recently of Clean Break: The Story of Germany’s Energy Transformation and What Americans Can Learn From It.