#BackChannel: ‘The Best Of Enemies,’ What To Do About Michael Jackson, And More

Mar 28, 2019

 In 1971, C.P. Ellis and Ann Atwater were asked to sit down together to solve the problem of school desegregation in Durham, and at the time no signs pointed to that being a good idea. Ellis was a Ku Klux Klan leader, Atwater was a black community organizer, and the two were enemies.

Despite all that, their collaborative efforts and unexpected friendship catalyzed lasting change. That story has now hit the big screen in director Robin Bissell’s rendition of “The Best of Enemies,” starring Taraji P. Henson and Sam Rockwell. Popular culture experts Mark Anthony Neal and Natalie Bullock Brown share their thoughts on Hollywood’s treatment of a Durham story with host Frank Stasio in the latest installment of #BackChannel, The State of Things’ recurring series connecting culture and context.

They will also review two new documentaries: the controversial HBO film “Leaving Neverland,” which details abuse allegations against Michael Jackson, and “Sammy Davis, Jr.: I’ve Gotta Be Me” from PBS American Masters. Plus, how do new albums from Solange and India Arie fit into their larger artistic footprints? Neal and Bullock Brown talk about India.Arie’s record “Worthy” and Solange’s “When I Get Home.” They also contextualize the latest news in the Jussie Smollet story.

Interview Highlights

Mark Anthony Neal on the character of Ann Atwater in “The Best of Enemies”:

It’s a character in a film that really pushes back against certain kind of notions of respectability. And Ann Atwater was a big, loud, black woman, and I'm sure there are folks who are going to watch her and watch Taraji in this role, who are going to be uncomfortable with those images. But the fact of that matter is, it's not the kind of perfect, say, Rosa Parks type figures, who always move the needle. Some of the folks who move the needle are folks that we're going to be uncomfortable with because they don't fit into some nice little paradigm of what a black heroic figure is supposed to be.

Natalie Bullock Brown on "Leaving Neverland":

When I first watched it, I was really trying to figure out: Do I believe these guys? Are they telling the truth? … But I think what was most striking to me was just how these parents of Wade and Jimmy were positioned in the film and the fact that for once white parents are questioned, and people wonder: What in the world were you thinking? ... I believe that something was going on. I don't know what. I think Michael, clearly was struggling with a whole range of issues ... We have got to figure out a way to compartmentalize how we feel about an artist and what they have contributed to our lives, and then also be able to look objectively at information.

MAN on India.Arie's new album "Worthy":

There was a point in time 15-16 years ago, where India.Arie was far more important to R&B. And R&B as a genre has not been good to allow women within the genre to both grow up and also to mature. In fact, the genre pretty much dispenses of them after a certain age. What you realize with this album is that there is a place for India.Arie because she has an audience, and what she has represented in terms of an image and a style of music still resonates for some people. 

NBB on Solange's new album "When I Get Home":

What I love about Solange is encapsulated in “Things I Imagine" — what she’s doing in the beat and her pitch — I think this album, and that song, really reflects who Solange is. And I don't think that there's any pretense. I think that exactly who she is, is what she represents in her music ... I just appreciate so much that authenticity in her artistry.