We saw the movie, Best of Enemies, last night. The theater was only about half full, which was too bad for the people who missed a really engaging story, based on a true story. The acting by Taraji P. Hensen and Sam Rockwell was Oscar-level with a nicely nuanced minor-role performance by Anne Heche as the wife of Ku Klux Klan leader C.P. Ellis.
Without giving away anything, the basic story is that, by 1971, Durham NC had desegregated most of its public facilities but not the schools. You will recall that the seminal Supreme Court school-desegregation decision in Brown v. Board of Education was handed down in 1954.
The elementary school attended by black activist Ann Atwater’s daughter is all but destroyed in a massive fire. There are hints that the Klan caused the fire but that line is never explored. No one messes with the Klan in 1971 Durham …. except Ann Atwater. Like some modern-day resisters, she takes plenty of grief but gives some back through sheer grit and determination.
The central drama centers around a “charrette” led by a black man. The Oxford English dictionary defines “charrette” as “A public meeting or workshop devoted to a concerted effort to solve a problem or plan the design of something.” In the movie it is the equivalent of a mediation involving the entire community with blacks and whites in the same room but largely sitting on opposite sides of the center aisle. The goal is to address the issue of what to do with the black kids that must attend school somewhere to finish their academic year while their school is repaired. The logical choice, of course, is to move them to the closest “white school.”
I must say that we both thought there was considerable sugar-coating of the interactions in the charrette, given the level of racial hostility and general mistrust, not to mention endemic ignorance among most members of the white community. But there is drama enough.
What I found most interesting was the role of the Klan in the town. They had completely corrupted the power structure and were cruel and efficient in the methods they used to suppress dissent from their “white power” creed. Recalling my own upbringing in a large (for the times) southern city, I never saw the overt presence of the Klan but its “philosophy” was ever present in the mentality of most white adults and the children in whom they inculcated their deeply racist view of the world. I grew up in a town where there were still “whites only” and “colored only” water fountains side by side in the local Sears store.
In 1971 Durham, the ability of the Klan to function more or less in the open and unchallenged rested to a significant degree on the isolation of its victims. No digital communications network existed that could instantly transmit information or alarms to summon help. An individual person, particularly a woman, living alone was especially vulnerable. And if the Klan was good at nothing else, it knew very well how to exploit that isolation to instill terror without fear of reprisal.
If you see this excellent movie, and you should, observe the Klan at work and think about what made it possible, even in the presence of many right-thinking white people, to press its “whites are superior” message on everyone in the community. The movie will almost certainly lead you to think about the contemporary parallels in the racist tropes spread by the current president and the Republican Party as well as the emergence from the shadows of the Klan or Klan-like acolytes who have been in hiding all these years, waiting for their Grand Dragon to call them out again.