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A time to embrace

Sam Rockwell, left, and Taraji P. Henson, right, with Babou Ceesay (Annette Brown/STXfilms)

Movie

A time to embrace

Historical drama The Best of Enemies shows the transforming value of time spent together

It’s so simple yet so marvelous: Spending time with someone can radically change your opinion of him or her—for the better! The new film The Best of Enemies is based on the true story of C.P. Ellis, a Ku Klux Klan chapter president, and Ann Atwater, an African American community organizer, who couldn’t stand each other until they sat down together.

It’s 1971, and the public schools of Durham, N.C., are still segregated. After a fire destroys a black elementary school, NAACP attorneys file a lawsuit to send the children to a white school to finish out the year. Spineless city leaders pass the buck to Bill Riddick, an outside consultant who leads a “charrette”—basically, a protracted community meeting.

Ellis (Sam Rockwell) and Atwater (Taraji P. Henson) reluctantly agree to co-chair a panel of 12 Durham citizens, six black and six white. The panel meets daily, guiding the charrette, with Riddick (a splendid Babou Ceesay) its haggard referee. White-power groups spread fear, and black residents despair of change. At the end of two weeks, the panel will vote: A two-thirds majority is required to enact integration. Durham officials hoping the charrette seals school segregation may just have underestimated the power of fellowship.

The Best of Enemies (rated PG-13, with racial epithets, expletives, and some violence) delivers an uplifting message but with less emotional force than I anticipated. Still, as the story testifies, sharing a meal with an enemy, listening to his life story, meeting her children—all these can strike mortal blows to fear and hatred. The Christianity on display in the film seems little more than cultural, but Atwater makes a point that stops Ellis cold.

“Same God made you, made me.”

Would people today set aside a week or two to sit down together to discuss race relations—or anything? I wonder, for not only has our nation largely abandoned God, we are abandoning each other. Yet there’s a marvelous empathy that meeting face-to-face produces that phone-to-phone conversations can’t.