The Best of Enemies

Posted on April 4, 2019 at 5:30 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for thematic material, racial epithets, some violence and a suggestive reference
Profanity: Strong language including racist epithets
Alcohol/ Drugs: Alcohol, cigarettes
Violence/ Scariness: Peril and violence including racist attacks
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie, including racial and disability issues
Date Released to Theaters: April 5, 2019
Copyright 2018 STX Entertainment

The biggest divide in this big, divided world is not between people of different races or religions or political beliefs; it is between people who have different ideas of who is “us” and who is “them.” “The Best of Enemies” is based on the true story of C.P. Ellis (Sam Rockwell), a white supremacist and the Grand Exalted Cyclops (president) of the local chapter of the Klu Klux Klan, and Ann Atwater (Taraji P. Henson), a black woman who was a community activist working for civil rights and economic justice.

In 1971, Ellis and Atwater were appointed co-chairs of a charette, a dispute resolution mechanism used to resolve complicated community disagreements. Originally developed for land use debates among parties with multiple and varied interests, it was adapted for other kinds of issues by Bill Riddick, played in this film by Babou Ceesay.

Ellis and Atwater lived in Durham, North Carolina. Seventeen years after the Brown v. Board of Education decision by the Supreme Court that segregated schools were unconstitutional, the Durham schools were still divided. When the school attended by the black children burned down, the city had to decide whether to let them attend the school the white children were attending. The court did not want to deal with it, so they asked Bill Riddick to see if he could get the community to come to some agreement.

Ann Atwater worked for Operation Breakthrough but it was more than a profession; it was her calling. We first see her arguing on behalf of a young woman whose apartment is uninhabitable. And throughout the film we see that her entire life is one of advocacy and generosity. Everyone she meets is either someone to be protected or someone to help her protect others. Her sense of “us” encompassed the world.

C.P. Ellis ran a gas station. He loved his family, including a disabled son who lived in a residential facility.  The Klan made him feel respected and important. He created an outreach program to bring teenagers into the Klan. And he organized outings like the time they shot up the home of  a young white woman coming home from a date with a black man.

He agrees to co-chair the charette because he believes that anyone else who got the position would cave. And there are those in the town who would never associate with the Klan but who are glad to support them in private.

Rockwell and Henson make Ellis and Atwater into fully-developed, complex characters. There’s a world of history in the way Henson walks as Atwater, shoulders hunched, hitching her hips along.  In one scene where she reprimands young black boys for tearing down a KKK hood on display, and then straightens it herself after shooing them away, the expression in her eyes speaks volumes about what she has seen.  And when we see the patience and tenderness Ellis has for his disabled son, we get a sense of all he thinks has been taken from him and how much it matters to him to hold on to something that makes him feel powerful.

This is a thoughtful, sincere drama, beautifully performed with a touching conclusion, first of the story itself, and the small acts of kindness that make “thems” into “us-es,” and then with the footage of the real-life Atwater and Ellis. When she takes his arm to help him walk out of the room, our own us-es get a little larger, too.

Parents should know that this movie deals frankly with issues of bigotry and racism including attacks by the Klu Klux Klan. It includes some strong language with racist epithets and a sexual reference. Characters drink and smoke and there are violent, racially-motivated attacks.

Family discussion: What did Atwater and Ellis have in common? Why did she help his son? Why did she tell the boys not to take down the KKK hood? Who is the Ann Atwater in your community and what are the issues?

If you like this, try: the book by Osha Gray Davidson and the 2018 Oscar winner for Best Picture, Green Book

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Horror is More than Scares and Carnage

Posted on February 27, 2019 at 10:20 pm

As we see in movies like “Get Out,” “28 Days Later,” and “Dawn of the Dead,” horror can be more than scares and carnage. It can reflect and challenge our assumptions. Two new articles provide some fascinating commentary on these themes.

Copyright 1976 Red Bank Films
Mary Beth McAndrews writes on Reel Honey about “reclaiming female exploitation” in horror. “Recently, female directors have been working to reclaim this exploitation by appropriating these tropes to create empowering horror narratives. These films are still violent, but they do not solely depend on the suffering and abjection of their female characters….These directors and writers are just a few of the women in horror working to change the trajectory of the horror narrative and how we view the female body on-screen. Yes, horror is a genre built on violence and gore. But these women are re-evaluating the use of that exploitative violence into something thoughtful, empowering, and equally gory. The monsters they construct are not so fantastical and the scenarios they portray are much more real, giving their violence more meaning and purpose. It is not just about reveling in women’s bodies in pain; it is about understanding their pain.”

Copyright Universal 2017
And on Medium, Marcus Benjamin writes about a new documentary: “Horror Noire: A History Of Black Horror’ Makes The Case For Empathy In A Scary World.” Traditionally, he says, “Outside of dying, tending to the the main character’s need was our number one function. This was all done while doing a disservice to our own lives, which we may or may not have had on screen because no one cared enough to give them one. Or in the case of Rachel True’s character from The Craft, someone decided to cut out portions of the film altogether that explored her family life and other struggles….When you’re not surrounded by people of races other than your own, you don’t develop the empathy gene for them. How can you begin to comprehend how a black person feels about blackface if you don’t have any black people in your circle to tell you? Or if you’ve didn’t grow up with any black friends? Or if you grew up in a racist city or town? Despite all your efforts to learn, you’ll likely have a cultural blindspot or two. Similarly, when the history of cinema is filled with blackface or monsters and gigantic apes as stand-ins for black people, that means entire generations grew up believing black people were always lesser.”

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Native Americans on Film

Posted on February 4, 2019 at 8:00 am

It wasn’t that long ago that Native American characters in film were played by actors of other races, including Burt Lancaster, Audrey Hepburn, Anthony Quinn, Burt Reynolds, Johnny Depp, and Elvis Presley. Depictions are often wildly inaccurate, from the most basic details of dress, ceremony, culture, and history.

It was just four years ago that Native American actors walked off the set of the Adam Sandler film, “The Ridiculous Six.” The fact that the movie was offensive to Caucasians and every sentient life form on the planet did not justify what the actors were being asked to do.

This week’s “Cold Pursuit” has real Native Americans playing Native American characters, and the one of the movie’s high points is when one of them uses their ethnicity — and the prospect of a withering Yelp review — to pressure a snooty hotel clerk into giving them a room. Most of the Native Americans in “Cold Pursuit” are criminals, but so are most of the rest of the characters.

Putting actors of Native American heritage in the movies is not enough. Letting them play characters who are not stereotypes, even better, letting them play characters where their ethnicity is not a defining characteristic– is a step forward. Best of all is the stories they tell by and about themselves, as in the endearing Smoke Signals.

Sierra Teller Ornelas writes in the Hollywood reporter that when she worked at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian, many of the visitors asked for more information about what they had seen in the movies and it was almost entirely inaccurate.

We’re so invisible. And we’re so sick of explaining to people that we’re invisible. We have an abundance of great stories to tell. And even when we get to tell your stories, we make them so much better (see Taika Waititi’s Thor: Ragnarok). If traditional network and cable structures are about to straight-up implode, if people are finally desperate enough to try anything, then try me, or Sterlin Harjo and The 1491s, Sydney Freeland, Azie Dungey, Lucas Brown Eyes or all the other Native creators who are grinding and capable. Because if all content is indeed going the way of the streaming algorithm, I’m worried about what happens when you — and your voice and your stories — have never occurred to that algorithm.

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Share the Stories of Martin Luther King on MLK Day 2019

Posted on January 20, 2019 at 12:41 pm

As we celebrate the birthday of Martin Luther King, every family should take time to talk about this great American leader and hero of the Civil Rights Movement. There are outstanding films and other resources for all ages.

I highly recommend the magnificent movie Boycott, starring Jeffrey Wright as Dr. King. And every family should study the history of the Montgomery bus boycott that changed the world.

It is humbling to remember that the boycotters never demanded complete desegregation of the public transit; that seemed too unrealistic a goal. This website has video interviews with the people who were there. This newspaper article describes Dr. King’s meeting with the bus line officials. And excellent teaching materials about the Montgomery bus boycott are available, including the modest and deeply moving reminder to the boycotters once segregation had been ruled unconstitutional that they should “demonstrate calm dignity,” “pray for guidance,” and refrain from boasting or bragging.

Families should also read They Walked To Freedom 1955-1956: The Story of the Montgomery Bus Boycott. Paul Winfield has the lead in King, a brilliant and meticulously researched NBC miniseries co-starring Cecily Tyson that covers Dr. King’s entire career.

The March, narrated by Denzel Washington, is a documentary about the historic March on Washington with Dr. King’s famous “I have a dream” speech.

The brilliant film Selma tells the story of the fight for voting rights.

The Long Walk Home, starring Whoopi Goldberg and Sissy Spacek, makes clear that the boycott was a reminder to black and white women of their rights and opportunities — and risk of change.

Citizen King is a PBS documentary with archival footage of Dr. King and his colleagues.

Martin Luther King Jr. – I Have a Dream has his famous speech in full, still one of the most powerful moments in the history of oratory and one of the most meaningful moments in the history of freedom.

For children, Our Friend, Martin and Martin’s Big Words are a good introduction to Dr. King and the Civil Rights movement.

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Interviews About My #1 Film of 2018, If Beale Street Could Talk

Posted on January 7, 2019 at 8:00 am

Copyright Annapurna 2018
I had the great pleasure of speaking to two of the people behind my favorite film of the year, “If Beale Street Could Talk,” breakout star Kiki Layne and writer/director Barry Jenkins, who adapted the film from the James Baldwin novel.

My interview with Ms. Layne was for the Alliance of Women Film Journalists. She spoke about the support her character gets from her strong, devoted family.

The love in that family is just so, so powerful. We see the beauty of having those people to lean into and having those people around that are nurturing you and nurturing your growth. Tish has some growing up to do. Her family encourages that but it’s not all, “You’ve got to get over this.” It wasn’t that type of energy. It’s just like, “Hey, this is a situation that you’re in but really we’re all in it together,” and I think that was the beauty of the family dynamic in this film.

And I spoke to Barry Jenkins for rogerebert.com. He described the one scene where he augmented Baldwin’s story.

Another one of my favorite scenes is the one where they’re in the loft with the young landlord after so many rejections. It is so delicate and charming.

The character was in the book but it’s one of the few places in the translation that I’ll say I felt it didn’t go just far enough for me and so as I was walking around the space I just had this thought in my head like, “How in the hell could you possibly see a way to turn this into a home?” Then I realized, “Oh, but what says love and faith more than a lover saying, ‘I promise I can do this’ and you say ‘Okay, yes I believe you,’” So that’s when we added this whole thing of how we’re going to make this into a home and then him showing where he’s going to put all these things and then I was like, “Oh, it feels kind of cute let’s just go all the way with this pantomiming with the fridge,” and when we did it, there was something so lovely about watching Dave Franco and Stephan James perform this kind of joke in a certain way which was rooted in love and faith that when we got to the roof it also seemed like, “Okay, and now these characters feel connected. How can we take it one step further?”

This idea of mothers in the film is so important. Tish has a mother and she is pregnant, Fonny has a mother, Victoria Rogers, the woman who’s been sexually assaulted, she’s pregnant. She’s not showing but she’s pregnant. It’s all this idea of mothers. I thought, “Oh, here is something that I can see uniting these characters,” and that’s when we gave Dave Franco the line, “I’m just my mother’s son.” Sometimes it’s that idea that makes the difference between us and them; not black and white but people who have been loved and the people who haven’t.

This was adapted with I think much respect and deference to Mr. Baldwin, but that was one of the places where I’m really proud of how I was able to fuse my voice and his.

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