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The Best of Enemies

At Movie Night yesterday, we discussed the 2019 film The Best of Enemies. It’s the real-life story of how Ann Atwater, an African-American woman and activist, worked with C. P. Ellis, a local leader of the Ku Klux Klan, to desegregate public schools in Durham, NC in the 1970s.

The film focuses on Ellis’ conversion—and that is really what it is, what is required, for people like Ellis and Atwater to become lifelong friends. In 2005, when Ellis died, his family asked Atwater to deliver the eulogy. She passed away in 2016, just a few years before the film was made.

During our discussion, some of us felt that the story deserved greater nuance. The film could have paid greater attention to Atwater’s story; it could’ve narrated the long road to school desegregation in Durham, including the stories of the many—women and men like Atwater—who paved the path there. That does not take away from the value of, and remarkable story behind, Ellis’ conversion. It just enriches our ability to remember rightly.

I had the chance to attend the film’s premiere at the Carolina Theatre back in 2019. During introductory remarks, a local pastor mentioned what he had learned from Atwater about organizing: “Well, it’s pretty simple,” she said. “I listen to you until I learn what you want, then I help you get it. When we get halfway to what you want, I’ll tell you what I want.”

Thank God for people like Atwater: people who believe in the potential of unlikely friendship without sacrificing their  dignity and worth in the process. Thank God for unlikely converts like Ellis too, and the ways that we—each in our own way—are called to emulate both.

—Fr. Javier