‘Best of Enemies’ film brings a pivotal moment of Durham’s history to life

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‘The Best of Enemies’ the movie

‘The Best of Enemies’ stars “Empire” star Taraji P. Henson as civil-rights activist Ann Atwater and Academy Award winner Sam Rockwell as Ku Klux Klan leader C.P. Ellis, telling the true story of events in Durham, NC, in 1971.

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The movie version of a real-life Durham story is coming to the big screen April 5 in the form of “The Best of Enemies,” and Durham is getting ready for the spotlight.

Based on the 2007 book, “The Best of Enemies: Race and Redemption in the New South” by Osha Gray Davidson, the film tells the story of civil-rights activist Ann Atwater and Ku Klux Klan leader C.P. Ellis.

Through the ’60s, Atwater and Ellis were on opposite sides of Durham’s racial divide. But that started to change in 1971, when they were convinced to join a local committee organized in the wake of a court-ordered desegregation ruling.

Improbably, perhaps, Atwater and Ellis came to discover they had more in common than they realized. They were able to put aside their differences in the name of the cause, with profound impact that spread far and wide.

“The Best of Enemies” stars Sam Rockwell as Ellis and Taraji P. Henson as Atwater. Robin Bissell, executive producer of “The Hunger Games” and “Seabiscuit,” is the film’s writer, director and producer.

Rockwell won last year’s best-supporting-actor Oscar for his role as a racist cop in “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” (which was filmed in North Carolina).

Henson, star of “Empire,” was nominated for best supporting actress in 2008’s “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.”

A local group is hosting a screening of the film in advance of the movie’s national opening date, plus has activities in the works with schools and faith groups to highlight the film’s local connections and history.

Two premiere screenings are scheduled in Durham.

March 19 at the Carolina Theatre: The 7 p.m. screening serves as a fundraiser for the Poor People’s Campaign, a national organization founded by Rev. William Barber. Tickets will soon be available at the Carolina Theatre. Tickets are $15 with a limited number of VIP tickets for $100. The VIP tickets include a wine reception with Bissell and Davidson and people portrayed in the film; a signed copy of “The Best of Enemies” book; and reserved seating. Tickets are on sale March 1 at 10 a.m. at CarolinaTheatre.org, the Carolina Theatre box office or Ticketmaster.

March 20 at Duke University: Screening and panel discussion at Griffith Theater at 4:30 p.m. Davidson will sign his books before the film. The panel will include Bissell, Mary Martin, who was a friend of Atwater’s, and Bill Riddick, who is portrayed in the film as manager of the local committee. Free tickets are available at Duke’s box office starting March 6.

David Menconi has covered music and the arts for The News & Observer since 1991. He can be reached at 919-829-4759 or dmenconi@newsobserver.com.