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'The Best Of Enemies' Movie Recalls Pivotal Time In Durham's Civil Rights History

Taraji P. Henson on red carpet in Durham.
Leoneda Inge

In 1970s Durham, N.C., two of the most unlikely people became what we would call today – “frenemies.” The relationship between a Ku Klux Klan leader and a civil rights activist would go down in history and is now on the big screen.

That means the hottest ticket in downtown Durham on Tuesday night was the city's premiere of the film “The Best of Enemies.” The movie centers around Ann Atwater, a well-known community activist and C.P. Ellis, an "Exalted Cyclops" of the Ku Klux Klan. As the film depicts, they didn’t like each other at first.

"Folks in this town want blacks to stay in their own schools and I’m here to protect my family," says Ellis in a heated scene. "So all the better is you don’t get in my way."

"Well, I’m gonna get in your way," answers Atwater.

Atwater got in a lot of people’s way when it came to fighting against poverty and fighting for affordable housing and for better schools. She was sometimes called “Roughhouse Ann.” Ann Nakia Green, Atwater's granddaughter, was at the Durham premiere and corroborated the stories.

“So stories about knocking chairs around, that was real," said Green. "Stories about hitting people over the head with a telephone receiver, that was real. Everything is factual!” she laughed.

Green flashed bright red hair and all black attire on the red carpet. She says she learned a lot from her grandmother.

Durham Civil Rights, Ann Atwater, Civil Rights
Credit Leoneda Inge
Academy Award nominee Taraji P. Henson, left, smiles on the red carpet at Durham's Carolina Theatre with Ann Nakia Green. Henson plays Ann Atwater, Green's grandmother, in the film 'The Best of Enemies.'

“She taught me how to be strong. She taught me how to be bold. To not be scared of adversity and to speak up for myself and others that couldn’t," said Green. "My grandmother was old school. So respect was definitely something she instilled in me and something I try to give everybody, everybody that I come in contact with.”

In 1971, there was a stalemate over court mandated integration of Durham Public Schools. Atwater and Ellis were called on to lead a 10-day “Save Our Schools” meeting to help bring all sides together. 

Robin Bissell is writer, producer and director of “The Best of Enemies.” He says now couldn’t have been a better time to present this story to the world.

“But I look at these two people and this happening in the south in 1971, and that gives me a little hope, right. OK, if they can do it, maybe we can do it,” said Bissell at the event.

Osha Gray Davidson is author of the book “The Best of Enemies: Race and Redemption in the New South,” which was first published in 1996. He says this film resonates today because issues of race and class continue to be ignored.

Durham Civil Rights, Civil Rights, Ann Atwater
Credit Leoneda Inge
Robin Bissell chats with reporters on the red carpet at the Carolina Theatre in Durham. He is the writer and director of 'The Best of Enemies.'

“Because of structural racism, it’s not going to be fixed by just one friendship," said Davidson. "That is what C.P. learned through Ann, that the problem that he was facing as a poor white person, he was told it was caused by poor black people.”

Atwater helped Ellis understand, thinking this way would just keep poor people, black and white, at each other’s throats.

Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, founder of the School for Conversion, was a close friend of Atwater’s and was with her when she died in 2016.

“You know at the end of Ann’s life she was so looking forward to being on this red carpet. Which is the only reason I’m here right now," said Wilson-Hartgrove. "Because she said make sure people know this story, so she was delighted this movie was coming in.”

And Atwater was delighted to know Academy Award nominee Taraji P. Henson would be playing her on the big screen.

“I could just feel the love of this woman. She was not only a mother for her children, she was a mother to an entire community," said Henson. "She was just incredibly selfless and that’s hard to find from people these days. We owe a lot to her, even me and I’m not even from Durham.”

In the end, “The Best of Enemies” was filmed in Atlanta, not Durham, because of a lack of funding and state incentives. The movie hits theatres April 5.

Leoneda Inge is WUNC’s race and southern culture reporter, the first public radio journalist in the South to hold such a position. She also is co-host of the podcast Tested and host of the special podcast series, PAULI. Leoneda is the recipient of numerous awards from AP, RTDNA and NABJ. She’s been a reporting fellow in Berlin and Tokyo. You can follow her on Twitter @LeonedaInge.
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