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This Review Reveals Minor Details About the Plot.

Pyrrhic Victory

The Best of Enemies (2019) on IMDb

Plot Overview

1971 Durham, North Carolina. These were heady days of protest. I was a University student in Cincinnati walking to the coffee house to hear protests on the Vietnam War when a string of black protestors came by walking the other way. One of them in passing socked my white face. One can go from protestor to protested in an instant depending on perspective.

“The Best of Enemies” opens with a rousing protest against substandard housing (“Fix our houses now!”) led by negress Ann “Rough­house Annie” Atwater (Taraji P. Henson) and her Operation Break­through. Squared off against them is the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) with their Chapter President C.P. Ellis (Sam Rockwell) for whom “Our race is our nation.” It's slow going for the colored masses.

educational suppliesWhen an electrical fire guts the East End (Negro) Elementary School, forcing the colored children to relocate or time-share the undamaged rooms, Annie seizes the opportunity to try to force school integration and obtain better resources for black children all round. The NAACP weighs in putting the judge in an awkward position. He passes the buck by referring both sides to binding arbitration—called a Charrette—led by college-educated, black man Bill Riddick (Babou Ceesay.) It will likely be another defeat for the black community unless they can find a powerful white ally.

This movie serves as a true example, but there's an earlier legal precedent mentioned in Lionel Hampton's auto­biography:

I remember one time Walter White, head of the NAACP, … told me about what led up to the Supreme Court decision in the school desegregation case in 1954. Walter told me he … phoned Eisenhower and requested an appointment. He said he went there and listed all the reasons why school segregation was wrong. He said that if the Supreme Court agreed to hear the case Brown v. Board of Education and ruled [for] desegregation, it would break the back of segregation in American society. He said, “Mr. President, this is the last chance for you to help us.” Eisenhower listened, didn't say a word. But then he picked up the telephone, and said, “Get me Chief Justice Earl Warren.” And he got on the phone with Warren, and he said he knew the president was not supposed to put pressure on the Supreme Court, but he was going to send Walter White over to talk to him about the case. And the Supreme Court decided to hear the case and ruled in favor of the NAACP lawyers and desegregation. (97–98)

busingThat was a violation of the separation of powers, for what it's worth. In Sonia Maasik & Jack Solomon, Signs of Life in the USA, Stuart Buck “explains how the well-intentioned policies of desegregation eventually led to … a reversal of intention” (Maasik 637),

because desegregation undermined one of the traditional centers of the black community: the school. In the segregated schools, black children had consistently seen other blacks succeeding in the academic worlds. The authority figures and role models—that is, the teachers and principals—were virtually always black. And the best students in black schools were black as well. ¶This ended with desegregation. (Maasik 639)

As John McWhorter points out, the “demise of segregation” helped “pave the way for the ‘acting white’ charge. With the closing of the black schools after desegregation orders, black students began going to school with white ones in larger numbers than ever before, which meant that whites were available for black students to model them­selves against” (McWhorter 64–65).

In integrated schools if a black kid started getting good grades, his peers would accuse him of “acting white.” With such a disincentive to achieve, that kid would go back home on the bus undereducated.


school cafeteriaThe Charrette was set up in Harris Junior High School, with six blacks and six whites on the panel, and requiring a 2/3 majority (8) to pass any resolution. At lunch the cafeteria's mandatory seating arrangement alternated whites with blacks; Annie was seated at a small table with C.P. (Ouch!)

At her meetings a black who was late provoked Annie's remark, “African time.” Their people of old had gone by sunrise and sunset without the benefit of clocks to delineate hours and minutes. In Jacques Ellul's book, The Technological Society, he main­tains that the plethora of western technology that shapes our lives had its origin in the regimented time established by the village clock. Here the movie refers obliquely to this lack of development. William P. Pickett, discussing Abraham Lincoln's solution the negro problem (30), quotes from Thomas Dixon, Jr.:

The negro has held the continent of Africa since the dawn of history, crunching acres of diamonds beneath his feet. Yet he never picked one up from the dust until the white man showed him its light. His land swarmed with powerful and docile animals, yet he never built a harness, cart or sled. A hunter by necessity, he never made an axe, spear or arrow­head worth preserving beyond the moment of its use. In a land of stone and timber, he never carved a block, sawed a foot of lumber or built a house save of broken sticks and mud, and for four thousand years he gazed upon the sea, yet never dreamed of a sail.

“African time” is subsumed in all that, and we think back when Annie brought a stack of housing complaints to the city council. They brushed them off as minor repairs to be dealt with later. She rejoined that they are a violation of code. Yes, and she represents a people who “never built a house save of broken sticks and mud.” Annie on being denied laments that “Humans shouldn't have to live like this.” In fact they are being treated as not far removed from savagery.

A bridge is formed between her and C.P. when she sympathizes with his boy Frank suffering from Down's Syndrome who is housed at Murdock's Psychiatric Center. At first he has a private room, i.e. segregated from the other patients. Then hospital rules require he share a room, i.e. integrated with another patient. The boy does not take well to that arrangement and refers to the other fellow as a “monster.” The hospital thinks he has to get used to it. C.P. doesn't like it.

In Pickett's writing, “We are not called upon here to adopt or refute the scriptural theory of the curse of Noah resting upon Ham and his descendants, condemning them to perpetual slavery” (30.) However, the Charrette ends each day with gospel (“nigger”) music balanced by a KKK display in the hall. As Annie carries and maintains a Bible, we can take a look at what it says on this subject. Gen. 9:20-23 holds a biblical reference to the incident in question where Noah cursed the offspring (Canaan) of Ham, (Gen. 9:24-27) “And Noah awoke from his wine, and knew what his younger son had done unto him. And he said, Cursed be Canaan; a servant of servants shall he be unto his brethren. And he said, Blessed be the LORD God of Shem; and Canaan shall be his servant. God shall enlarge Japheth, and he shall dwell in the tents of Shem; and Canaan shall be his servant.”

Said curse used to be pretty well understood: Writer Bodie Hodge (134) quotes “Bible Questions and Answers,” The Golden Age (July 24, 1929): p. 702.

Question: Is there anything in the Bible that reveals the origin of the Negro?

Answer: It is generally believed that the curse which Noah pronounced upon Canaan was the origin of the Black race. Certain it is that when Noah said, “Cursed be Canaan, a servant of servants shall he be to his brethren,” he pictured the future of the Colored race.

Pickett (570) quotes John Ambrose Price on the Negro's state: “The negro being a descendent of Ham, can be made subservient to human use, for his manifest destiny is that of a servant, and the ordinance of God requires that he should be placed in a sub­or­din­ate position to a superior race” (275).

Frank's caring father C.P. and our father of humanity Noah favor his and their segregations. The rules of the hospital and the rules of our democracy favor integration. We are told at the final vote of the Charrette that not every­body is going to be happy with it, and they are right. The movie's end material discusses the aftermath.

Production Values

” (2019) was directed by Robin Bissell. Its screenplay was written by Robin Bissell as adapted from Osha Gray Davidson's book, The Best of Enemies: Race and Redemption in the New South. It stars Taraji P. Henson, Sam Rockwell, and Babou Ceesay. We enjoy excellent acting from the two principals, and they had a solid supporting cast.

MPAA rated it PG–13 for thematic material, racial epithets, some violence and a suggestive reference. The pacing was slow as befits the south, and it's a bit long at 133 minutes. There's an end credit sequence featuring footage of the real Atwater (d. 2016) and Mr. Ellis (d. 2005) giving their true perspectives. The movie is a good re-creation of the mood, era, and setting. The music seemed forced to fit, but I like Negro spirituals as much as the next guy. Some of the action scenes were unmitigated, blunt trauma.

Review Conclusion w/ Christian Recommendation

My sources have it that this one is more realistic than the standard Hollywood fare. Seemed real to me. It is what it is, and whether it will change any­one's opinion on race remains to be seen. As a date movie, how­ever, proceed with caution. It's not an epic by any means, but it can hold your interest. I liked it, but then I'm easy to please.

Movie Ratings

Action factor: Well done action scenes. Suitability for Children: Suitable for children 13+ years with guidance. Video Occasion: Good for a Rainy Day. Suspense: Predictable. Special effects: Well, at least you can't see the strings. Overall movie rating: Three stars out of five.

Works Cited

Scripture quoted from the King James Version. Pub. 1611, rev. 1769. Software.

Hampton, Lionel (with James Haskins). Hamp an Auto­biography. New York: Amistad, 1993. Print.

Hodge, Bodie. Tower of Babel: The Cultural History of Our Ancestors. Green Forest, AR: New Leaf Pub., 2013. Print.

Maasik, Sonia and Jack Solomon. Signs of Life in the U.S.A.. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin's, 2012. Print.

McWhorter, John. Winning the Race: Beyond the Crisis in Black America. (New York: Gotham, 2006), As quoted in Maasik.

Pickett, William P. The Negro Problem: Abraham Lincoln's Solution. New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1909. Print.

Price, John Ambrose. The Negro, Past, Present, and Future. Neale Publishing Co., 1907. As quoted in Pickett.