Oh absolutely,” Taraji P. Henson told Christianity Today when we asked if her faith in God informs her choice of roles as an actress and influenced her to take on the challenge of playing Ann Atwater in Best of Enemies. “I look for projects that are going to transform people … and spark intelligent conversation.”
For Henson, it is especially important to look for films that will “push envelopes [in a way to] make you want to do something good to change a bad situation.”
It is no surprise, given these sentiments, that Henson was enthusiastic about playing civil rights activist Ann Atwater in this historical drama about the integration of Durham, North Carolina, schools in 1971. What may surprise audiences of Best of Enemies is not how much it praises Atwater but how hard it strives to humanize and complicate her antagonist, Ku Klux Klan leader Claiborne Paul (C. P.) Ellis, played by Sam Rockwell.
Scriptwriter and director Robin Bissell echoed Henson’s assertion that the film is more about personal transformation than about institutional changes. Bissell states that as a white male he was not sure he would be the best person to represent the depth and scope of the violence of the Klan toward African Americans. Consequently, he tried to focus the story more narrowly on how Ellis was able to “breakthrough” his own prejudices and, especially, how Atwater’s faith empowered her to see a salvageable core of humanity that could be reached beneath Ellis’s exterior of hate.
Best of Enemies depicts the firebombing of an African American school and the systematic inequalities of segregation. But the two most frightening scenes in the film may well be incidents of violence perpetrated by the Klan against white women. Bissell and Henson agree that these depictions of white-on-white violence were important in helping differentiate the film from other depictions of racial violence. Producer Dominique Telson, however, points to a scene in which Ann gazes into the white hood that is part of an “educational” display Ellis brings to a community meeting to reinforce that the specter of white-on-black violence informs the film’s characters.
While Telson names female empowerment as a theme of the film, Bissell and Henson underline the message that the violence against white women and men was also a way to show how hate crimes are rooted in the psychology of fear. “They hate whatever they fear,” Henson says. Bissell also chose to depict the Klan not merely as defenders of racist city government officials but also tools of them: “The white power structure uses fear and these groups as their pawns.” In the film, Ellis’s recognition of the gulf between the ideology that he and other Klan members preach and their hateful actions makes him question his unthinking allegiance to the group.
Ultimately, however, the film argues that it was as much Ann’s kindness as the Klan’s hypocrisy that made Ellis re-examine his prejudices. Citing the fact that Ellis’s family asked Atwater to perform the eulogy at his funeral, Telson says that the film shows how one Christian woman’s acts of love had ripples that “went down generations.”
Bissell describes the message of the film to Christians even more succinctly: “Your faith should be about love.”
Kenneth R. Morefield (@kenmorefield) is a professor of English at Campbell University. He is the editor of Faith and Spirituality in Masters of World Cinema, Volumes I, II, & III and the founder of 1More Film Blog.