‘The Best of Enemies’ Summary & Review – An Unlikely Friendship Changed Durham

The Best of Enemies is a feature film based on a true-life story that introduces us to an improbable friendship that forms between two staunch personalities, C.P. Ellis, the then-reigning President of the Ku Klux Klan, and Ann Atwater, a dignified, strong black woman who advocated vocally for the basic humane treatment of African-American folk in Durham, North Carolina in 1971.


‘The Best of Enemies’ Plot Summary

1971 witnessed desegregation as an existing and prevalent legal mandate in the state of North Carolina. However, the White Supremacists assumed power and held that position with the aid of C.P. Ellis, leading them from the front. The film opens with a small instance of Ann sitting with a certain city representative to fix a women’s water pipes and toilet conditions. But Ann’s anger stems from the deep distrust that she has developed during her time living there.

The film then moves to another character, who we understand as C.P.Ellis. He sports a belief system standing on solid ground that the White race must be “protected” from the Blacks, Jews, Communists, etc., and remain the only sacred race in American history. In this character’s mind, the essence of his race must not be threatened at any cost. This mad hunger for power cannot be highlighted as strongly as the sign on C.P’s door saying – ‘This is KLAN COUNTRY.’

The Best of Enemies slowly introduces us to the characters’ worlds through many different incidents that take place. The main one being that the East End elementary school, mainly a Black children’s community school, almost completely burns down. This brings the immediate need for the children to be placed in a White school, namely the Durham Elementary school, submerging the town into complete chaos.


The Leads – Roughhouse Annie vs. The Exalted Corps.

The film depicts two contrasting characters leading complicated lives in poor conditions in a divided town – we see the characters build the plot through their life experiences. A social cause like the integration of the black and white children in Durham Elementary, primarily a white school, becomes the clarion call for change.

Director and writer Robin Bissell, in his feature debut film, shows Ann Atwater’s character portrayed by Taraji B. Henson as a passionate vocal advocate for the African American community. In contrast, we observe a cold-hearted, youthful C.P Ellis portrayed by Sam Rockwell, leading his strictly-male brethren into the delusion of racial superiority under the guise of American “greatness.”

Their relationship starts out with a sense of stark friction when both invitees of Riddick are not able to share a table. The initiative to shift that dynamic first is seen when Ann discovers that C.P has a sense of practicality, when the first charette happens. Ann has a change of heart and responds by putting aside her own inhibitions towards C.P’s close-to-heart interests, stepping forward to help C.P’s son at the Murdock Psychiatric hospital.

Ann Atwater's character portrayed by Taraji B. Henson
Credits: Astute Films, Material Pictures

Spoilers Ahead

The Stimulants/Influencers of Change – The Supporting Actors.

The Best of Enemies begins on a cold note of dagger-bearing. The face-off is neutralized when a certain Bill Riddick, portrayed by Babou Ceesay, ice-skates his way into the town to begin his well-known charrettes- a method to bring communities together to reach a practical and mutually agreed-upon resolution to any issue that the town is facing, creating an everlasting permanent change within that community.

Riddick’s methods ask the community to find its own common ground, but tempers rise. Since it is a government-enforced decision, the people begin to understand each other and start looking out for the children first before themselves, not hiding the discomfort of either race, black or white. The N-word is used like it is everyday lingo in the heyday of 1971. Durham begins to meet together at a Junior High school with allotted seats, alternating Black and White individuals, breaking the ice between both communities during their lunch breaks. Making us view these tensions as real-life scenarios occurs only when the regular but politically neutral members of Bill’s co-chaired ‘Senate’ of the White community are intimidated by the fellow brethren of the KKK to win votes against school integration, the final part of the three main Challenges that the town faces.

Director Robin Bissell coyly shows C.P’s slow change of heart through his wife, Mary Ellis (portrayed by Anne Heche), who keeps him as grounded as she possibly can, and through this love, C.P begins to start seeing a shift in his own outlook. When Mary reaches out to Ann, it creates a ripple effect of restless Klan members, stirring worry and, consequently, intimidation tactics.

As the film closes to an end, the resolutions are presented as a whole on the Harris Junior High school stage, where the challenges of three different natures are introduced, and School integration stands as the last and final one. The White’ Senate’ mostly votes NO (co-chaired with C.P Ellis as its lead representative with 8 regular, neutral Members) and the Black’ Senate’ (co-chaired with Ann Atwater as its lead representative with 8 regular Neutral Members). They vote an all- majority positive Yes.

When the final vote comes down to the C.P, we immediately observe that his eyes have a different spark. While the opportunity presents itself, C.P bares his heart and belts out a surprising, YES, to change the almost-lost, happy outcome to a glorious victory for the Black Senate, leaving his right-hand man in a pit of disgust and disappointment.


In Conclusion

The final outcome is that racist individuals in the White community continue to hold a certain level of dislike for C.P, while there is a surprising turn of events. Ann Atwater reveals her genuine nature by bringing the other half of the town to C.P’s gas pump that was close to shutting (after C.P’s pump almost nearly blows up), elegantly saying that it’s what she does, finally baring her own true heart. We even get to meet the real faces of Ann Atwater, C.P, and Bill, which is worth those few minutes and makes us witness an everlasting bond between two contradicting personalities that are now evolved beings.


The Best of Enemies is a 2019 Social Drama film directed by debut director Robin Bissell. It is based on a true story adapted from the book The Best of Enemies: Race and Redemption in the New South by Osha Gray Davidson. It stars Taraji, B. Henson, Sam Rockwell, and Babou Ceesay in important roles. The film is currently streaming on Netflix.

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Anushka Rao
Anushka is a Storyteller and a Painter. She is still looking for a silver lining in any situation and figuring how innovative she can be to make the world a better place. Charisma and mystery with a spark of genius. A true Believer that films are our strongest power yet, for change.

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