Interview with ‘Best of Enemies’ film star, director and producer
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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.
It’s been a long and twisty path bringing the civil rights drama “The Best of Enemies” to the big screen, with plenty of detours and more than a few happy coincidences.
But some stories are so good that they make their own way in the world, destined to be told and retold.
That’s the case with this film, which opens in theaters nationwide April 5. “Empire” actress Taraji P. Henson and Oscar winner Sam Rockwell star in the film that tells the true story of an unlikely friendship between an African-American community activist and a notorious Ku Klux Klan leader. Set in Durham circa 1971, the film chronicles a last-ditch effort to integrate the public school system of a dangerously divided city.
The movie’s arrival represents the story’s long-awaited breakthrough as a major motion picture, with the real-life drama already told over the years in books, documentary films, stage plays and countless newspaper and magazine articles.
Now that the film is completed, filmmakers hope it can help navigate a current national atmosphere that’s similar to the mood of 1971, a time of partisanship and racial tension. They have faith that the story, though almost 50 years in the past, will encourage people to come together for the common good.
“I hope this film is a message that it can happen,” producer Dominique Telson told The News & Observer this month, just before a special Durham premiere ahead of the national release. “It’s about sitting across from one another and really having a dialogue. If these polar opposite people could come together, maybe there’s hope for the rest of us.”
What ‘The Best of Enemies’ is about
A quick primer on the new film: Henson and Rockwell lead the cast, with Henson playing Ann Atwater and Rockwell as C.P. Ellis, Durham residents who reluctantly agreed to work together in the city’s court-ordered school desegregation process.
Atwater, known as “Roughhouse Annie,” was a tireless and strong-willed activist for the black community in Durham — a fixture at city council meetings willing to take on racist officials and crooked slumlords. She was then in her mid-30s.
Ellis, a 44-year-old gas station owner, was a kind of self-appointed representative for Durham’s white residents who opposed the court order. Ellis was also the Exalted Cyclops of the Ku Klux Klan’s Durham chapter and a dedicated believer in racial segregation at all levels of society.
In the summer of 1971, Atwater and Ellis were brought together by Raleigh-based community activist Bill Riddick in a radical conflict mediation program known as a charrette. For 10 consecutive days, from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., Atwater and Ellis agreed to work together with their fellow residents to resolve Durham’s school crisis.
What happened from here powers the central story of the new film, written and directed by veteran producer Robin Bissell (“Seabiscuit,” “The Hunger Games”). While the film takes some dramatic liberties with the official record, the essentials are unchanged. The rest is history.
Further details might spoil the film for those who don’t know the true story, but suffice it to say that Atwater and Ellis emerged from the charrette to become lifelong friends, and Durham was forever changed. Ellis died in 2005 at 78, and Atwater in 2016 at the age of 82. Atwater spoke at Ellis’ funeral.
‘The Best of Enemies’ — The Book
Bissell’s debut film is based largely on the 1996 book “The Best of Enemies: Race and Redemption in the New South” by author and journalist Osha Gray Davidson. Davidson’s book, in turn, was informed by newspaper and magazine articles that have been published over the last several decades.
Author and historian Studs Terkel wrote about the Durham story in his 1980 book “American Dreams” and again in his 1992 book “Race: How Blacks and Whites Think and Feel About the American Obsession.” Over the years, the story inspired many other professional storytellers to turn their eyes to Durham.
In 2000, local documentary filmmaker Diane Bloom read Davidson’s book on the recommendation of a friend — a social worker in Durham who happened to be a godfather to Ann Atwater’s grandchildren. Bloom was working as a qualitative researcher on various topic areas for the University of North Carolina and other clients. Her job involved interviewing people for academic studies, and she saw an opportunity.
“It was kind of a natural extension of the work I was doing,” Bloom said in an interview. “I thought it would make a great documentary.”
Bloom met with Atwater, Ellis, Riddick and several others who had participated in the events of 1971. She secured a small grant from UNC and began interviewing Atwater and Ellis, both together and separately. When she ran out of money, Bloom continued to finance the film on her own.
Those interviews resulted in the 2002 documentary short film “An Unlikely Friendship,” which was broadcast on public television and won several awards on the film festival circuit. Bloom later used her movie in a series of diversity workshops for government and corporate clients, including Apple and AOL. The film even made its way into an overseas peacekeeping program for Palestinians and Israelis.
The story of Atwater and Ellis was making its way into the world.
“So many fascinating things have happened with this,” Bloom said. “It’s got a life of its own.”
‘The Best of Enemies’ on stage
Meanwhile, the Durham story was making its way into other arenas. In 2003, Studs Terkel and actor David Schwimmer incorporated the story into an adaptation of Terkel’s work at the Lookingglass Theatre Company in Chicago. Parts of Bloom’s documentary movie were incorporated into the show, and Terkel arranged to have the film broadcast on Chicago public television.
Once again, the story of Atwater and Ellis served to bring people together. Bloom and Atwater joined a large Durham delegation to attend the last performance in Chicago.
The story was popping up elsewhere, too. In 2011, author and playwright Mark St. Germain debuted his new stage play “Best of Enemies” at the Barrington Stage Company in Pittsfield, Mass. The play, also based on the book by Davidson, went viral in a theatrical kind of way, moving through theaters in New York, Boston, Chicago and elsewhere.
In 2013, the St. Germain play made its way back to Durham. The pioneering Triangle theater space Manbites Dog Theater mounted a popular and critically acclaimed production, directed by theater multihyphenate Joseph Megel and starring local performers Lakeisha Coffey, Elisabeth Lewis Corley, Thaddaeus Edwards and Derrick Ivey.
The production included an opening night benefit performance for Ann Atwater, who was able to see her own story return to her beloved hometown.
‘The Best of Enemies’ — the 2019 movie
All of this leads to the big-screen premiere of “The Best of Enemies” and still more instances of artistic cross-pollination. When writer-director Bissell originally optioned the rights to Davidson’s book in 2008, various logistical problems kept the adaptation process from moving forward. But over the years, an odd kind of synergy began to manifest.
While Bissell was producing the big-budget film “The Hunger Games” in 2013 — filmed in Asheville and Charlotte — he attended the opening night production of the Manbites Dog production. Not coincidentally, several other critical players were in attendance that night: Atwater, Riddick and Bloom, the documentarian.
Filmmakers Bissell and Bloom also connected.
“When I first heard about C.P. Ellis and Ann Atwater I thought, maybe this could be a movie,’” Bissell said in a statement provided to Bloom. “Then I read the book and thought, ‘I think this might be a good movie.’ But it wasn’t until I saw Diane’s film that I thought, ‘I absolutely have to tell this story, and it’s going to be a great movie.’”
Bissell said he spent time getting to know Atwater, who pushed him to get the movie made.
The University of North Carolina Press just reissued Davidson’s original “Best of Enemies” book in a special motion picture edition. With a glossy new design — and two movie stars on the cover — the influential book may find its way to a new generation of readers.
In mid-March, Bissell and Henson, along with Telson and Davidson, visited Durham for a series of advance screenings and promotional events. In appearances at Duke University and the Carolina Theatre, they spoke about how the story made its final round-trip sprint from Durham to Hollywood and back to Durham again.
For Henson’s part, Henson told The News & Observer that she first read the script in 2014 when filming the pilot episode of the hit Fox television series “Empire.” (Danny Strong, an executive producer on “Empire,” is a producer of “The Best of Enemies” film.)
She loved the story and the character of Atwater, but scheduling conflicts prevented her from committing at the time.
Then the 2016 election happened.
“I noticed the climate started to change,” Henson recalled. “I said: ‘We have to do this movie and we have to do it now.’”
Henson’s participation made all the difference. “Getting Taraji got our picture green-lit,” Telson said.
And her casting reportedly got the stamp of approval by Atwater herself before she died, Bissell and her family said. There was an emotional moment at the recent red carpet premiere at the Carolina Theatre when Henson met Atwater’s relatives and they could show mutual admiration for the efforts to initiate change.
“To have (Atwater) really love the script and be over the moon that Taraji was going to portray her, that was the best for me,” Bissell said. “Even though I have the massive regret that we weren’t able to make the movie before she passed.”
Rockwell signed on as the other lead, and the project kicked into high gear. Location scouting began in Georgia, a development that has its own little side story concerning the North Carolina legislature’s 2014 decision to end the incentive programs for the film industry and replace it with a grant program on a smaller scale. Georgia has become a go-to place for filming, thanks to its robust incentives.
“We wanted to shoot in Durham, but unfortunately the tax incentives went away,” Telson told The News & Observer. “This is not a studio film, not a big budget, and Atlanta was offering a 30 percent tax incentive. We had to take advantage of that.”
Coming to NC
Still, the cast and crew had their own North Carolina connections to pave the way. Bissell spent time in Durham during his college years, and later when he was shepherding his script toward production.
“I went to the University of Maryland and my best friend went to Duke, so every time the Terps would come down and play basketball, I was here,” he told The News & Observer. “When I first got the rights to the book, I started traveling here to meet Ann Atwater and Bill Riddick and the family of C.P. Ellis. I just went around to all the locations and got a real feel for it before I even wrote the script.”
Henson spent some time at North Carolina A&T State University in Greensboro before transferring to Howard University’s drama program.
“When I was in college I knew this was the city to come party,” Henson said with a laugh. “You had great single men here! But I wasn’t really thinking about the history then. Flash forward to now, I understand this place is really rich in history, especially in this movement here, in civil rights.”
And her ferocious performance in the film suggests a genuine sense of urgency.
“I think we’re all aware what’s been going on,” she said. “We’ve seen hate crimes been kicked up more, people are feeling comfortable more about being okay with this hate. And we have to do something about it.
“Art is so powerful, that’s why stories like this have to be told – so we don’t find ourselves going backwards,” she said. “We’ve got to keep chugging along so we can find ourselves on a better side of history.”