Behind ‘The Best of Enemies’: A chat with Taraji P. Henson about one of Durham’s most famous stories

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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A Durham story will be told nationwide this weekend as the film “The Best of Enemies” hits theaters.

Ann Atwater and C.P. Ellis became unlikely friends in the 1970s — she an African-American community activist and he the president of Durham’s chapter of the Ku Klux Klan. Portrayed by top actors Taraji P. Henson and Sam Rockwell, the film focuses on the 1971 community forum where Atwater and Ellis erased the divide between them and impacted the history of Durham schools.

Last month, Durham got the first glimpse of the film, with a local premiere at the Carolina Theatre, complete with a red carpet. Henson, star of “Empire” on Fox, writer and director Robin Bissell and producer Dominique Telson came to the Triangle with the film.

The trio sat down with The News & Observer before the premiere to talk about filming a Durham story in Georgia, the political climate that helped get the movie green-lit and what Cookie Lyon and Ann Atwater have in common.

Q: What first attracted you to the role of Ann Atwater?

Henson: Danny Strong, one of the co-creators of “Empire” and producers of “Empire,” gave me this script when we shot the pilot. And I was like, “Wow,did this really happen?” and he’s like, “Yeah it’s a true story. Google it.” And there it was.

We had scheduling conflicts and couldn’t get it going. Then the election in 2016 happened and I noticed the climate started to change. In history, we were going backwards. So I called Danny and said, “We’ve got to make this movie and we have to make it now.”

This movie is so important. The universe is interesting, it will conjure up these stories in a timely fashion. We didn’t plan this, I couldn’t have written how this got made any better. I couldn’t write this.

Q: Taraji, you went to school briefly in North Carolina (NC A&T in Greensboro). What did you know about Durham and its history of strong African-American leadership before jumping into this project?

Henson: I have family down here, but I didn’t know much about Durham. When I was in college, I knew this was the city to come party in. You had great single men here, but I wasn’t really thinking about the history then. You know, flash forward to now, I understand this place is really rich in history, especially in this movement here, in civil rights. I mean, who knew?

And in 1971, you know? 1971. It’s not that long ago.

Watch the trailer for "The Best of Enemies"

Q: The movie is set in Durham, but filmed in Georgia. To what extent in your research and decision making did you make the trip to Durham and see the place?

Telson: We started out going to shoot in Durham, but unfortunately around the time we were going to start filming, the tax incentive went away. This is not a studio film, it’s independent, not a big budget. So Atlanta was offering a 30 percent tax incentive, which is money that was already on the screen, wasn’t even to pay her (Henson). It was not a big budget

It took a lot of work to find the places, but Robin had a relationship with Jeannine Oppewall, four-time Academy Award-nominated set designer. (She) came in and gave the stamp of approval we could do it in Atlanta, and we were able to recreate as much as we could of Durham.

Bissell: I had a long history here, so when I first got the rights to the book, and I first 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. I knew in Atlanta we could get close enough.

Q: Taraji, in preparing to portray Ann Atwater, there’s a real physicality to the role; she’s a big presence. Can you tell me a little about where that comes from and who you’re thinking of in building her up as a character?

Henson: I have to channel her, she’s real. I can only pull off of Ann’s life and her experiences. I just watched a lot of video of her and I paid particular attention to what people who knew her, what they were saying about her. They were giving very specific descriptions of her. C.P. in particular would say, “You could hear her before you see her.” “She had a big mouth.” “She’d walk into the room and she’d make everybody stand up.” Those were things that I could grasp, they were very tangible for me.

And then just watching her a lot. And listening to her tone. I have family in the South, so I spent a lot of summers in the South. I’ve played a lot of Southern women. I’ve been around a lot of Southern women and I love playing Southern women. There’s something about the South, the hospitality and the love. You could be broken down on the side of the road and I guarantee you could use the phone, get a good meal, they might put you on the sofa.

In this image released by Fox, Taraji P. Henson appears in a scene from “Empire.” The show is included in the television series that a Directors Guild of America report released Tuesday, Aug. 25, 2015, said made the “Best” list, with at least 40 percent of episodes directed by women or minorities. FOX Chuck Hodes

Q: Is there any similarity you drew on or any thread you could connect Cookie (Lyon from “Empire”) and Ann Atwater?

Henson: Both women don’t take no stuff. And they don’t take no for an answer. And they get what they want and they take up for people who can’t take up for themselves.

"I wasn't looking for a miracle," said Bill Riddick, the man who brought KKK member C.P. Ellis and African-American activist Ann Atwater together to discuss desegregating Durham schools. But as the new film "The Best of Enemies" shows, he got one.

Q: There’s a powerful scene in the movie where Ann catches high school kids stealing a Ku Klux Klan hood from a mannequin. She replaces it and becomes quite disturbed. Can you talk about filming that scene?

Henson: I mean I’ve seen pictures of the hood and the costume, but I had never been that close to one. So that was a visceral response from Taraji playing Ann. But that, my skin, my heart was beating really fast. It was very uncomfortable. What I loved about it is your knee-jerk response would be “Burn that ... . Throw it in the trash.” But when you consider yourself a Christian, what Ann taught those young boys, was very powerful. Understand your enemy. Read the stuff, understand where they’re coming from, then you know how to approach it. But if you’re just mad and angry you’re not any different than them.

Taraji P. Henson co-star of the film ‘Best of Enemies’ talks during an interview a The Umstead Hotel and Spa in Cary, Tuesday, March 19, 2019. 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. TRAVIS LONG tlong@newsobserver.com

Q: You don’t really see people from this polarized of positions coming together. What do you hope people will take from this film and how can you apply that to today?

Bissell: I have to say, these two, C.P. Ellis and Ann Atwater, knew each other for a long time, before this small period of time. They hated each other. She hated him for a very good reason and he hated her for not a good reason. It took 10 years, but when they finally sat down and started talking, even though at first it was arguing, at least they were in front of each other. And seeing each other as human beings and learning from each other.

Today we’re in a two-dimensional world. We’re looking at Twitter and television and our computers. No one is three-dimensional anymore. We have to get back to that somehow. We have to hear people’s voices instead of just yelling at a screen. We have to sit across from each other.

Henson: This is not an isolated. Sam actually spoke to an ex-KKK member. And his job now is he is plucking people out of those hate groups. So it’s happening, we just don’t see all the stories about it.

Telson: I felt some kind of way when you said you can’t imagine it today. I hope this film is a message is can happen today. It’s really about sitting across from one another and really having a dialogue and hopefully this movie will give people hope that maybe if these polar opposite people can come together, maybe there’s hope for the rest of us.

Q: The movie ends with C.P.’s transformation. In what way would you say Ann changed as a character as well?

Henson: Oh, Ann changed tremendously. First of all, if you want change, you have to become the change you want to see. And that is exactly what she did. Initially, they were the same person, screaming and yelling at each other, full of hate. And it wasn’t until she had to step back and remember that she’s a Christian woman, and when you’re a Christian person you have to love unconditionally, just like God loves us all, and your love has to be all-inclusive. When you talk about the meaning of love, love is the search for understanding. If you’re really a Christian, then your job is to understand your enemy.

Telson: And love that enemy.

Henson: And love that enemy. That’s a hard thing to do.

Q: Lately with the Oscars, Hollywood has been critical of the so-called white savior sort of movies. How did you consider avoiding that kind of pitfall?

Bissell: That term is bandied about sometimes for really good reasons. But from the very beginning I knew what this movie was. This man was saved by others, he didn’t save anybody. Ann Atwater, Bill Riddick saved C.P. Ellis, saved his soul. So by its definition, the true story doesn’t fit into any kind of label like that.

Q: The film had been kicking around for a while in pre-production. You talked about the 2016 election. Could you talk a little about the change in climate that pushed this movie forward?

Henson: I think we’re all aware what’s been going on and we’ve seen hate crimes have 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 movies and stories like this have to be told, so we don’t find ourselves going backwards in history. Until we get there, it’s important to tell stories like this, to hold a mirror up to humanity and say, “Look at us, we’re not looking too good right now.”

Bissell: There’s something about art that inspires, be it music or film or visual art, because every day we’re met by news: bad news, bad news, bad news. But people need to be swept in and feel viscerally. So telling a beautiful story or beautiful song, something that takes you out of that angst and gives you hope. I mean I’m inspired every day by art and it just keeps you going.

Q: Did you spend much time with the families of C.P. Ellis and Ann Atwater in researching the movie?

Bissell: Early on, I was so lucky to get to know Ann, starting in 2013. And I spent a number of years talking to her, visiting her a bunch of times. On the phone she kept asking me when I was going to be done, kept pushing me. To have her really love the script and be over the moon that Taraji was going to portray her, that was the best for me, even though I have the massive regret that we weren’t able to make the movie before she passed.

Bill Riddick was the same. Bill Riddick was a big part of the movie. We talked all the time. C.P.’s family has been very generous, they know what is being portrayed here, they’re proud of their father’s transformation.

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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.