In 1971, civil rights activist Ann Atwater and KKK leader C.P. Ellis struck up an unexpected friendship that led to school desegregation in Durham. Now, their story is coming to the big screen.
“The Best of Enemies” held a red carpet premiere at the Carolina Theatre Tuesday, with many of Atwater’s family members and the film’s star Taraji P. Henson in attendance.
Following Brown v. Board of Education, Durham school remained largely segregated, until a Durham district court ordered the desegregation of local schools in 1971. Bill Riddick invited Atwater and Ellis to co-lead a charrette, involving 10 days of town meetings to resolve issues related to the court order. By the end of the meetings, Ellis publicly ripped up his KKK membership card.
“Ann was able to put her differences aside and see C.P. Ellis as a human,” Henson said. “She was able to tap into his heart, and by doing that, she changed his heart.”
Atwater and Ellis realized their similarities and started a lifelong friendship. They proposed major changes to the Durham school curriculum, including more instruction on how to deal with racial violence and an expansion of the choice in textbooks to include African-American authors.
The film is based off Osha Davidson’s book “The Best of Enemies: Race and Redemption in the South” and Diane Bloom’s documentary “An Unlikely Friendship.” Davidson’s book was the required summer reading for Duke freshmen in 2011.
The producers honored the story of school desegregation by hosting a screening for 600 Durham school students Tuesday morning, the film’s first public audience.
Director Robin Bissell, who previously worked as the producer on “The Hunger Games” and “Seabiscuit” first heard of Atwater and Ellis’ story after Ellis’ death in 2005. “The Best of Enemies” marks his writing and directorial debut.
“It taught me a lot about where hatred comes from and how to get through the hatred,” Bissell said.
Atwater died in 2016, but she knew Henson would accept the role and the movie would be made prior to her death. Her reputation as a powerful, caring civil rights activist lived on at the premiere.
“Ann was the leader of the low wealth people who were living in the black community,” Riddick said. “Basically, she was the only voice they had, and she represented them well.”
Henson watched videos about Atwater prior to filming to ensure an accurate portrayal.
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“She went up against a bunch of powerful white men, and she was very bold in doing so,” she said. “She was a voice for the voiceless.”
Atwater’s daughter said Ellis and Atwater were the best of friends, in part because they had to be.
“He lost all of his friends when he decided to take on this challenge. She lost a great deal of people in community because they were working together,” she said. “So they kind of stuck together as best friends. And it was a wonderful relationship.”
The film’s premiere coincides with the 150th anniversary of Durham's incorporation, shining a light on the city’s civil rights history. But Davidson felt that the story was timely in more than one way.
“The problems that [Ellis] was facing as a poor white person, he had been taught they were caused by black people,” Davidson. “He was being used by the wealthy elite in Durham to keep poor whites and poor blacks at each other’s throats so that no one would challenge the standing order. This story resonates today because we have the same problems, and we need to do the same work on these issues.”
Despite being set in Durham, “Best of Enemies” was filmed in Georgia due to more favorable tax incentives for film crews.
“Even though I wanted to shoot here, we only had so much money,” he said. “And we could put more of that money onscreen if we shot it in Atlanta.”
Danny Strong, co-creator of the show “Empire” on which Henson was a star, first gave Henson the script. Although it was written in 2013, she signed onto the film in 2016.
“It was important to me because of the story and where race relations are at right now in the world,” Henson said.
Duke will host a panel on “Best of Enemies” following a screening of the film Wednesday at 6 p.m., and the film will debut in theaters nationwide April 5.
As much as Ellis and Atwater accomplished in 1971, some feel that more progress still needs to be made.
“That was 1971, and things still look like that now,” Henson said. “We still have a lot of work to do.”