Taraji P. Henson (RIGHT) stars in THE BEST OF ENEMIES
Photo: Annette Brown/Courtesy of STXfilms
Photo: Annette Brown/Courtesy of STXfilms

Interview: Taraji P Henson plays activist in ‘The Best of Enemies’ facing off against KKK leader

Originally posted Tuesday, April 2, 2019 by RODNEY HO/rho@ajc.com on his AJC Radio & TV Talk blog

Taraji P. Henson loves embodying strong female characters who don’t take guff from anybody.

In the period drama “The Best of Enemies" out April 5, Henson plays Ann Atwater, a civil rights activist in Durham, N.C. who helps integrate schools there in 1971 with an unforeseen assist from C.P. Ellis, a local Klu Klux Klan chapter leader played with surprising empathy by Sam Rockwell.

In fact, Ann and C.P. ended up becoming life-long friends.

If this film weren’t actually based on a true story, it would be hard to believe.

“They were both very courageous,” said Henson at a press junket last month at the Four Seasons Hotel in Midtown. “That’s why they gelled. They were one and the same.”

While “Roughhouse Annie,” as Henson’s character was nicknamed, wore unflattering, often frumpy dresses, Henson thinks she and her far more stylish Cookie character on “Empire” would have become fast friends.

“I don’t think Cookie would have judged her because Ann was not rich,” Henson said. “Cookie would look up to her for her boldness. Ann was the voice for the voiceless, for people who couldn’t take up for themselves.”

The film, shot in 2017 largely in Cartersville and Macon, captures a time in Raleigh when the Klan was an active presence following the tumultuous 1960s. Schools remained segregated 17 years after Brown vs. the Board of Education. The most insidious character in a sense was not Ellis but a city councilman played by Bruce McGill, who presented himself in public as more “progressive” in terms of race relations but privately continued to pull strings to ensure the status quo. The Klan, for him, was a pawn and C.P. eventually realized he was being used.

How the city at the time managed to get so many disparate groups in single room was through a charrette. It was a concept that was used mostly in business circles to resolve conflicts in a systematic way. 

Bill Riddick, a black man and consultant, came up with a way to use the charrette to deal with school integration and this particular town decided to give it a try. Riddick, who is still alive, showed up on set in 2017 as an advisor. He was instrumental in making sure the arguments we had in the film were accurate,” said Dominique Telson, a co-executive producer.

Telson said Riddick found both Ann and C.P. insufferable at first. One of the funniest scenes was when Riddick forced blacks and whites to sit together during lunch and talk about anything but school integration. Ann and C.P. at first acted like angry elementary school children. But as the characters got to know each other, their relationship became a friendship.

“The key is something we can still use today which is you have to stop fighting and start listening for once. He says that in the film. That’s the goal of the charrette. He didn’t choose sides. He just wanted both sides to talk and sometimes you can get a great outcome.”

Henson said social media is now just the opposite: people hurling insults at each other, digging in their heels rather than seeking common ground.

“I think the world needs a big charrette,” Henson said. “What I learned from Ann is change is worth fighting for and you must become the change you want to see.”

Once Ann stopped fighting with KKK man C.P., “when she tapped into her Christianity and loved him with the love of God unconditional and all inclusive, that’s how she was able to get him to change.”

Henson hopes the film sends a positive message that “love always wins. Hate never does. Hate’s objective is to destroy. If hate wins, mankind is destroyed. Love will keep us alive. It means loving the enemy.”

While critics felt Oscar voters gave “The Green Book” this year's best picture Academy Award because it made white folks feel good, Henson said "The Best of Enemies" should make “everyone feel good and leave the movie with a sense of hope. I don’t think there’s a white savior. If anything, I think Ann saves C.P. She saves herself. By saving herself, she saves him.”

ATLANTA, GEORGIA - MARCH 20: Actress Taraji P. Henson attends "The Best Of Enemies" Atlanta screening at Regal Atlantic Station on March 20, 2019 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Paras Griffin/Getty Images for STX Films)
Photo: Paras Griffin/Getty Images for STX Films

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About the Author

Rodney Ho
Rodney Ho
Rodney Ho covers radio and television for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.