‘The Best of Enemies,’ and Taraji P. Henson, bring a splash of Hollywood to Durham film premiere

Interview with ‘Best of Enemies’ film star, director and producer

The News & Observer's Drew Jackson interviews ‘Best of Enemies’ film star Taraji P. Henson, director Robin Bissell and producer Dominique Telson.
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The News & Observer's Drew Jackson interviews ‘Best of Enemies’ film star Taraji P. Henson, director Robin Bissell and producer Dominique Telson.

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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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Hollywood came to Durham Tuesday, summoned to the city by the memories of the late Ann Atwater, an African-American community organizer, and C.P. Ellis, a former leader of the KKK, who together changed the course of local history.

The eventual — and unlikely — friendship between Atwater and Ellis is the subject of the new film “The Best of Enemies,” centered around a 1971 community forum co-chaired by the two. The film will be released nationwide April 5, but a local premiere was held at the Carolina Theatre Tuesday, complete with a red carpet and glitz and glamour provided by one of the movie’s stars, Oscar-nominated actor Taraji P. Henson, who attended the premiere.

Another screening was held at Duke University Wednesday, followed by a panel discussion with the film’s creator Robin Bissell and people who personally knew Atwater and Ellis when they were alive.

The premieres and other film-related activities in area schools are meant to introduce a significant slice of Durham history to the Triangle as well as to pay tribute to two of Durham’s influential figures. As race relations continue to be tenuous throughout the country, the film’s stars, filmmakers and real people portrayed in the film emphasized that Atwater and Ellis’ work isn’t done.

Atwater, a well-known and influential community leader, helps change the heart and mind of Ellis, then the president of the Durham Ku Klux Klan, during a period of stark racial divide. Ellis died in 2005, and Atwater died a decade later in 2016.

Best of Enemies 1.jpg
(L-R) Sam Rockwell, Babou Ceesay and Taraji P. Henson star in THE BEST OF ENEMIES Annette Brown Courtesy of STXfilms

Their story was told in the 2007 book, “The Best of Enemies: Race and Redemption in the New South,” by Osha Gray Davidson, who also attended the premiere.

Atwater is portrayed by Henson, best known for her roles as Cookie Lyon on the Fox series “Empire” and as Katherine Johnson in 2016 film “Hidden Figures.” Ellis is played by Sam Rockwell, who won an Oscar in 2017 for playing a racist police officer in “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri.”

Tuesday’s premiere was a family reunion for Atwater’s family, and a chance for them to celebrate the matriarch of the family. Ann Nakia Green, one of Ann Atwater’s grandchildren, said her grandmother was a fan of “Empire” and endorsed Henson playing her on the big screen.

“I pray I have done her justice,” Henson told the audience Tuesday. “We all understood the importance of this story, it’s a reminder of what we should not be going back to.”

Set in 1971, the film depicts a Durham deeply divided by race that must come together to make decisions about the city’s children and education. In real life, Raleigh resident Bill Riddick organized a 10-day forum, called a charrette, to bring the residents together to learn the power of compromise and thoughtful discussion. Riddick’s role in the film is a prominent one.

Riddick, who attended Tuesday’s premiere, said the power of honest conversation is needed in today’s tense political climate.

“It is obvious we are a divided country, and that’s happened over the last two or three years,” Riddick said on the red carpet. “It’s sad, because what we tried to do, say, in 1971, to bring people together, it seems people now are trying hard to divide people and allow them to become enemies to each other. We all are Americans, we all live here and I don’t plan to move, so I need to get along with people.”

Riddick said change begins with individuals examining their own biases, before seeking the change in others. But he worries no one will “take the time.”

“The charrette was a 10-day process. You can’t do anything for 10 days with a crowd of people now,” Riddick said. “People need to have a look in the mirror at themselves and talk to themselves about, ‘What is it that’s wrong with what I think? What are my biases?’ I think if people took a serious look at their own biases, this country would be a better place.”

C.P. Ellis, left, and Ann Atwater, shown Tuesday, April 9, 1996, co-chaired a 1971 series of meeting on integrating Durham Schools. She was a black activist, he was Exalted Cyclops of the Durham KKK. Today they are friends and subjects of a book examining the same issues. (AP Photo/Herald-Sun, Bill Willcox) HERALD-SUN FILE PHOTO

Around the corner from the theater is a mural of Atwater and Ellis, included among other Durham civil rights leaders. Green, Atwater’s granddaughter, who grew up in Durham and returned from Texas for the premiere, said the mural is a site she visits when she is back home. She first met Ellis when she was 7 years old and said he and her grandmother could finish each other’s sentences. Their relationship was more like brother and sister, Green said, than friends. Atwater even spoke at Ellis’ funeral.

That unlikely unity could be a useful lesson today, Green said.

“The story is so much bigger than her, in the sense that she really showed us how we could come together and get things done,” Green said.

Local activist Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, who said he met Atwater in 2003, introduced the film. Tuesday’s premiere was a fundraiser for the Poor People’s Campaign led by the Rev. William Barber. Wilson-Hartgrove is a leader in the Poor People’s Campaign movement.

Wilson-Hartgrove remembers what he told Atwater when they met: “I want to learn from you what it means to build community.”

“She said, ‘All I do is listen to you until I figure out what you want, then I help you get it. When we get halfway to what you want, I tell you what I want. That’s organizing.”

Wilson-Hartgrove said Atwater put a photo of Barber by her bedside later in her life. He was pictured speaking on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. Barber made an unannounced appearance at Tuesday’s screening, drawing a standing ovation.

“It’s a humbling honor to be anywhere near such a giant transformation like Ann Atwater,” Barber said. “There may not be streets and interstates named after her. When she passed, flags at the state house, at the White House may not be put at half-mast, but heaven bowed.”

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Drew Jackson writes about restaurants and dining for The News & Observer and The Herald-Sun, covering the food scene in the Triangle and North Carolina.