‘The Best of Enemies’ tells a true story of NC history. What did the film get right?

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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 Best of Enemies” film starring “Empire” star Taraji P. Henson and Oscar winner Sam Rockwell opens April 5, telling the true story about a black woman and a white KKK leader in Durham who not only become friends, they change history in the process.

It’s the latest film to depict civil rights history in the South, and it’s based on the real friendship that developed in 1971 between activist Ann Atwater (Henson) and C.P. Ellis (Rockwell), the Exalted Cyclops of the local Ku Klux Klan.

Like many films billed as “based on the true story,” viewers may have some burning questions to see if some of those Hollywood scenes really played out as dramatically in real life. (Spoiler alert: Many do.)

Here’s a look at what the film got right, and the answers to some of those questions about what happened in Durham that pivotal year.

1. Is ‘The Best of Enemies’ a true story?

Mostly. The story has been told before — in articles, a book, a play and a documentary. Each have their own way of telling the story of Atwater and Ellis, but all have roots in the facts.

In this case, veteran filmmaker Robin Bissell wrote and directed the film based on the 1996 book, “The Best of Enemies: Race and Redemption in the New South” by Osha Gray Davidson. While there are some Hollywood liberties taken with the storyline, people connected to the film vouch for the overall story and themes — and a few of their personality traits.

Ann Atwater, pictured Oct. 21, 1996, sorts through clothes that were dropped off on her front porch anonymously for distribution. NEWS & OBSERVER FILE PHOTO

“The stories about knocking chairs around? That was real,” said Ann-Nakia Green, Atwater’s 35-year-old granddaughter. She attended a Durham premiere of the film last month and answered media questions on the red carpet. She said she met Ellis when she was a child.

“Stories about hitting people over the head with a telephone receiver?” Green said, referencing a scene from the film.

“That was real,” Green said with a laugh.

In the closing credits, their personalities are reaffirmed by clips of the real Atwater and Ellis, taken from the 2002 documentary “An Unlikely Friendship” by Diane Bloom, a local filmmaker and UNC researcher.

CP Ellis and Ann Atwater.

2. Are Ann Atwater and C.P. Ellis still living?

They’re not. Ellis went on to become a labor organizer and died in 2005. He was 78.

Atwater, whose activist work included Operation Breakthrough, an anti-poverty nonprofit, died in 2016. She was 80.

Bill Riddick, who brought Atwater and Ellis together in real life and in the film, still lives in Southeast Raleigh, where he and with his wife, Delores, have resided since 1969. Babou Ceesay, a Gambian-British actor seen primarily in British television and film, plays Riddick.

Riddick was consulted on the film and even visited the set in Georgia for a few days.

Howard Clement, who is seen in the film as a charrette participant, served on the Durham City Council for almost 30 years. He died in 2016.

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

3. Were Ann Atwater and C.P. Ellis really friends?

In the film and in real life, Atwater and Ellis are asked to co-chair a charrette — a 10-day workshop of sorts where residents come together to find solutions to problems. In the film, the two are asked to decide, among other things, whether the schools should be desegregated.

In real life and in the film, the two eyed each other with skepticism, each coming to the charrette with strong personalities and constituencies whispering in their ears.

C.P. Ellis and Ann Atwater, longtime enemies, were named co-chairs of the charrette S.O.S., “Save Our Schools.” Their story will be told in the upcoming film, “The Best of Enemies.” Jim Thornton The Herald-Sun Collection, copyright University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Libraries

But over time, they found common values. The film stops at the conclusion of the charrette, but in real life, Atwater and Ellis became like family, Green said.

“They never missed a beat, and sometimes it’s as if they could finish each other’s sentences,” she told reporters. “They were very passionate in what they did. They weren’t just friends. They became brother and sister.”

Atwater delivered the eulogy at Ellis’ funeral, according to numerous media reports.

‘Empire’ star Taraji P. Henson portrays Durham activist Ann Atwater in the new film ‘The Best of Enemies.’ Henson, left, appears with Atwater’s granddaughter Ann Nakia Green at the Durham premiere of the film last month at the Carolina Theatre. Drew Jackson jdjackson@newsobserver.com

4. Was ‘The Best of Enemies’ filmed in Durham?

No, and not anywhere else in North Carolina. People behind the movie had hoped to film it where the story took place. But since the legislature ended tax incentives and established a smaller scale film grant program, TV productions and films have taken their business to other states. “The Best of Enemies” was filmed in Georgia, so the Durham City Hall and other buildings on screen aren’t what they look like in Durham.

“We wanted to shoot in Durham, but unfortunately the tax incentives went away,” producer Dominique Telson told The News & Observer in an interview last month. “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.”

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From left, director and writer Robin Bissell, actress Taraji P. Henson and producer Dominique Telson of the film ‘Best of Enemies’ talk 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

5. Were Durham schools still segregated in 1971?

Not entirely. The first Durham schools desegregated in 1959 after a lawsuit from the McKissick family. But complete desegregation didn’t come for another decade.

In the film, Durham residents are asked to make a decision about integration after a fire damages the elementary school for black students. The black students are forced to continue going to school in the damaged building and fall behind in their classes.

In reality, Durham public historian Eddie Davis, a former city council member, said there may have been a fire, but not enough to permanently damage the school. The building still stands.

Today, the Durham Public School system’s student population is majority African-American at 43.8%, followed by 31.1% Hispanic/Latino and 19.1% white.

"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.

6. Who was Durham’s mayor in 1971?

In the film, a man named Carvie Oldham (played by Bruce McGill) serves as Durham’s mayor. Behind the scenes, he asks Ellis and his KKK members to do whatever needs to be done to make sure integration doesn’t happen. That includes intimidating members of the charrette committee.

In reality, the mayor was James R. Hawkins, who had been elected in May that year, just a few months before the charrette begins in July 1971. He succeeded former Mayor Wense Grabarek, who is still living.

However, Oldham was a real person in Durham. Oldham was executive director of the Durham Housing Authority and died in 1983. Oldham Towers, the public housing building on East Main Street, is named for him.

7. Were Klan materials and robes on display at the charrette?

Depicted in the film, Ellis brings Klan pamphlets, along with a robe and hood, to display at R.N. Harris, the school where the charrette was taking place. Riddick didn’t want him to, but allowed it, saying it was a compromise in exchange for allowing black participants to sing gospel music at the end of each meeting.

In the film, some black youth knock pamphlets off the display table and try to remove the robe. Riddick was going to let them, but Atwater stops them. In one of Henson’s most moving scenes in the film, she is visibly shaken while adjusting the robe. Ellis witnesses Atwater’s actions. So did Riddick, who confirms to The News & Observer that the episode took place.

“What I loved about it is your knee-jerk response would be ‘Burn that ... . Throw it in the trash,’” Henson told The News & Observer about the scene. “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.”

8. Did C.P. Ellis really rip up his KKK membership card?

Mild spoiler alert: In the climatic conclusion, Ellis tells the charrette participants his decision about whether the schools should be integrated.

The film is called “The Best of Enemies,” so it should come as no surprise that Atwater and Ellis became friends, made possible after he renounces the KKK.

That pivotal moment in the film? It happened, said Riddick. He was 5 feet away.

“I was shocked,” Riddick told The News & Observer. “Shocked. If you take my family out of it, it was the most shocking experience [of my life].”

“[Ellis] had found his soul. Found who he was, who he is.”

Ann Atwater works the phones from her home in Durham on March 27, 2008, as she tries to help those in need. Atwater, then 72, was a leader in Durham during the anti-poverty movement of the 1960s and continues to try to help those in need today. Ethan Hyman ehyman@newsobserver.com

9. Does Durham have a public historical commemoration of Atwater and Ellis?

Yes, there is a mural on the side of the Durham Arts Council in downtown Durham of different scenes from the civil rights movement in Durham. One image is a painting of a Herald-Sun photo of Atwater and Ellis, taken during the “Save Our Schools” charrette.

There is also the Ann Atwater Freedom Library at the School for Conversion in Durham. It is a small collection of books about “the American freedom struggle” for young readers in the Walltown neighborhood.

There may be more recognitions on the way. As part of the city’s 150th anniversary celebration this year, the short list of 29 Durham residents recommended for recognition includes Atwater and Ellis.

Drew Jackson and Jessica Banov contributed to this report.

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Dawn Baumgartner Vaughan covers North Carolina state government and politics at The News & Observer. She previously covered Durham for 13 years, and has received six North Carolina Press Association awards, including a 2018 award for investigative reporting.