THE BEST OF ENEMIES
About The Production
"The Southern way of life ..."
By 1971, Durham, North Carolina had long been known for its textile mills and
Duke University and the historically African-American North Carolina Central
University. It was a city
blessed with natural beauty, and there were old family fortunes in both the
black and white communities.
Some called it "Magic City."
But there were deep racial divisions in Durham, and class divisions within
the races, so intractable
that at times it seemed only a miracle could heal them.
Repressive Jim Crow laws were being challenged by activists across America,
mandates of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 were being resisted by whites clinging
to the status quo. Dr.
Martin Luther King, Jr. was set to join with Durham's activists on April 4,
1968, the very day he was
assassinated in Memphis, where he'd stayed on to support striking sanitation
workers. He'd been to
Durham earlier, though, to give his blessing to lunch-counter sit-ins initiated
by young activists.
C.P. Ellis was raised to believe in the old ways. He'd accepted the myth that
if African Americans
like Ann got a fair shake, he'd have even less. Instead of recognizing their
common ground, he embraced
the Klan's idea of "the Southern way of life" and all its toxic symbols. The
Klan's motto "not for self but for
others" resonated for him as he recruited and trained future members in the
Klan's Youth Corps. There
was no hint that C.P.'s outlook would ever change.
And yet, in 1971, it did.
In the final moments of an exhausting charrette, Durham's top Klansman tore
card in two.
Like everyone in attendance that night, charrette leader Bill Riddick was
stunned. "Other than
some things my children have done, C.P. tearing up his card was the greatest
feeling I've ever had in my
life," Riddick said 47 years later. "None of us had any idea this was going to
happen. We had succeeded
in getting the leader of a group to re-think his position. It took my breath
Writer-director Robin Bissell, who grew up in suburban Philadelphia,
Pennsylvania, was unaware
of the charrette or any of its participants until 2005, when he came across a
brief item about C.P. in Time
Magazine. The former Exalted Cyclops had died, and Time marked his passing on
the "Milestones" page.
Those few stark facts were Bissell's introduction to a tense tale that would
dominate his imagination for
more than a decade.
"My first thought was 'how did that happen!,'" Bissell recalled, referring to
"The item was just three or four lines and left me with so many questions."
Bissell found answers and historical context in Osha Gray Davidson's book,
which primed him for
Diane Bloom's award-winning documentary, An Unlikely Friendship (Filmmakers
Library, 2002). Bloom's
film featured the real-life C.P. in his later years, chastened by the fall-out
from his shocking charrette vote,
but never regretting it. Bloom had filmed C.P. and Ann together and their bond
was obvious. The
documentarian also interviewed Riddick and participant Howard Clement, adding
more layers to the
Bissell was now officially hooked on this history-making crew and knew he
would tell their story
someday in a dramatic feature film.
"Ann was a fierce activist who knew how to get things done," said the
writer-director. "She needs
to be known to the world. She was a catalyst for C.P. looking at himself, just
as Bill Riddick was a catalyst
for Ann looking at herself. She turned a Klansman into an activist - and a
"Humanizing a member of the Klan wasn't something I took lightly," Bissell
acknowledged, but the
documentary reassured him. "What an odd couple C.P. and Ann had become - they
made you laugh
and think. They had become very close and when C.P. died, Ann delivered the
eulogy at his funeral."
They did have a lot in common. As Sam Rockwell learned, "Ann talked about her
made fun of at school because she was hanging out with a Klansman, and C.P.'s
son's teachers were
making fun of him because his dad was a Klansman hanging out with Ann."
But C.P. was as good as dead to almost everyone he knew - Klan folk, as well
as the White
Citizens Council and other big shots who had used him over the years - the
minute his heart overruled
"The city leaders and superintendent of schools were all sitting in the front
row that night," said
Riddick. "When he tore his card up, you could see that it was over for him."
As Ann, who died in 2016, noted in Bloom's film: "C.P. lost a lot in becoming
my friend. When he
turned, they turned on him."
He still had Mary, though. Some wives basked in the reflected glow of a
husband's high rank in
the Klan. Not Mary. She was busy raising four kids, including one with severe
disabilities, and had never
cared for the Klan anyway. Besides, she liked Ann.
"Mary was probably the first white woman who ever arrived on Ann's porch with
a jar of jam and
got to go inside," said actress Anne Heche.
"Ann and C.P. were mirrors of each other," observed Taraji P. Henson. "Once
she tapped into his
love language - his family - she understood that and pulled him over to her side
with sheer force of will."
"It took an army to change C.P.," Bissell concluded, "but his racism was
learned, and he was ripe
Bissell optioned film rights to Davidson's book in 2008 but was
simultaneously busy producing
films with four-time Oscar-nominated writer-director Gary Ross. The six-month
option expired well
before Bissell had written a word. In the meantime, The Best of Enemies had
become a play, and
Davidson wanted to wait and see if it went to Broadway before granting Bissell
another crack at the film
Mark St. Germain's highly charged play premiered in 2011 and has been
well-received at regional
theaters around the country in the years since. But with a Broadway production
still just a dream,
Davidson decided to let Bissell try again. In the summer of 2013, with the
mega-success of The Hunger
Games behind him, Bissell was ready to step away from his life as a producer and
go to Durham.
Coincidentally, The Hunger Games had filmed in North Carolina, but in Asheville
and Charlotte, and
Bissell knew that Durham was different.
His trip coincided with opening night of St. Germain's play at Durham's
Manbites Dog Theatre.
Naturally, Bissell attended - as did Bill Riddick and Ann Atwater. The two
history-makers were friendly to
the Hollywood visitor, but far from star struck.
"Robin was the third person to approach us about doing a film," Riddick
recollected. "After he left,
we figured we'd never hear from him again. But he did come back. We had him to
our house for a meal
and did some serious talking."
Bissell, outlining the story by then, already knew he'd have to adjust the
timing of a few historical
facts to sustain the dramatic momentum a film needs. He explained his thinking
to Atwater, Riddick and
C.P.'s daughter, Vickie Lewis, the keeper of Ellis family history. All three
gave him their blessings on the
changes - and the rights to their stories. Bissell went home and had a first
draft in April 2014.
As time passed, Bissell's bonds with his subjects deepened. "Vickie would
ask, 'Do you really
think you're going to be able to do this?' She wanted her father's story told,"
he explained. "I always
wanted to call with good news, but in the movie business, you're so often on the
brink of good news. So,
I'd have to say, we don't have it yet, but we will. Their hopes weren't way up,
but they trusted me, and
believed in the script." Bissell adds, "Ann was so very excited to see the movie
and my biggest regret was
that I couldn't pull it together before she passed away."
Producer Matt Berenson believed in Bissell's script, too, and committed to
helping him find the
money to get THE BEST OF ENEMIES made.
"Robin is a humble guy," said Berenson. "I don't think he knew how good it
was. The fact that it
was a true story blew my mind."
Not only true but riveting. "Robin took heavy subject matter and made it
entertaining, not a history
lesson," Berenson emphasized. "He understands that great drama has humor in it,
just like life, and he
found those moments in the story. It makes you laugh, then pulls the rug out
from under you and you're
While Bissell was a first-time writer-director, he was also a seasoned
producer with a firm grip on
dramatic story-telling. "You try to pepper in a little history, but the less the
better," he said. "People want
to be invested in the characters. They want to feel."
Bissell's very first reader was Danny Strong. The two men had started their
careers as co-assistants to Gary Ross. While Bissell stayed on to produce with
Ross, Strong left to write and act. He
won the Emmy Award for Outstanding Writing for a Movie, Miniseries or Dramatic
Special with Game
Change in 2012, and was working on a new project - the TV series Empire - when
Bissell showed him
THE BEST OF ENEMIES.
Strong's feedback included a potent casting idea.
"Danny suggested Taraji P. Henson for Ann Atwater," Bissell said. "I thought
she was incredibly
talented, but she looked nothing like Ann. So, I asked myself what attributes of
Ann's would be most
important in telling this story. I realized what I needed most was a powerful,
Producer Fred Bernstein of Astute Films agreed. "Ann was a force of nature
who made things
happen by sheer force of will," he said. "Taraji embodies that with her own
strength of spirit and humor."
The filmmakers soon discovered that Henson was a gift that kept on giving.
"Getting Taraji got our picture green-lit," said producer Dominique Telson.
"I was thrilled, although
at the time honestly didn't know the caliber of actress we were getting. Now I'm
a believer. Taraji wanted
to go for it and really became Ann."
Rockwell was already a believer. "THE BEST OF ENEMIES initially got my
attention because it
was a lead part opposite Taraji Henson," he said. "I first saw her in Hustle &
Flow and was blown away.
She has a unique quality - beautiful and charismatic enough to be a movie star,
but she still seems like a
Roughhouse Annie ....
Portraying Ann Atwater was a kind of homecoming for Henson. "I know the
Southern feel and am
very familiar with the Southern woman of that era," she explained. "It's
nostalgic for me."
"When I was born in 1970, my parents had just migrated up from the South,"
she continued. "At
the end of every school year, we'd pack a bag and I'd be sent back down. It was
just me and my
grandmother and her friends, and all I'd do all summer was watch and mimic them.
I have so many old
women stored in me you have no idea!"
Not surprisingly, it was Danny Strong who introduced Henson to the story of
Ann Atwater and C.P.
Ellis. While they were filming Empire's first season, Strong shared Bissell's
script - and the suggestion
that she play Ann. Henson was initially skeptical for the same reason that had
given Bissell pause.
"I looked her up and thought I don't look anything like her," said the actress.
"But Danny said Ann
wanted me to play her, so I called my aunt in Durham. She knew all about Ann,
and I got interested."
Another year passed.
"We were busy working on Empire, and then the election happened and hate
popping up everywhere and I couldn't sleep," Henson recollected. "Ann had passed
by then, and it was
like she was haunting me. I told Danny we had to make this happen somehow. The
universe needs it.
Like Hidden Figures."
Henson was already committed to shooting the action thriller Proud Mary
during Empire's 2017
hiatus period. But she felt an urgency about The Best of Enemies and decided to
do both films during her
three-month break. Her grandmother wasn't the only family member on her mind as
she ruminated on the
grass roots activist. "I use my dad for Cookie on Empire and for Ann, too,
because he was very
outspoken," she said. "He lived his truth."
"Ann seems like she'd get down and scrap with you - knockin' men over the
head with phones!?!
She dedicated her life to improving the lives of others in her community - the
hood, the people who didn't
have a voice - and boy did she have a big voice!"
It was clear Henson admired and understood her character and was down for the
project. But the
fact remained that Ann was physically large and knew how to make her size
intimidating. Henson is much
smaller with a very glamourous persona. No one really wanted to push the
question of how far she might
want to go in her physical transformation for the role. What would Henson do?
Costume designer J.W. Hawbaker called Bissell with the news right after
Henson's first fitting. The
actress had told her: "Put pads around me. Make me look real."
Hawbaker had prepared for any outcome. "I brought clothes in Taraji's actual
size with me but
was hoping she'd be willing to do some body manipulation. She looked at the
clothes that were her size
and said, 'These are great, but do you have anything bigger?'
"Taraji and I both love who the real Ann was, and wanted to celebrate her,"
"She was a woman with things other than fashion on her mind."
And she was poor. Research guided Hawbaker as she considered how Ann would
dress for long
days as a single mother, breadwinner and activist. Among other things, the
designer read "every Life
Magazine from 1968 to 1971, and every article from Carolina Times (Durham's
newspaper) that ever-mentioned Ann Atwater."
At their first meeting, Henson recognized that Hawbaker had dug deep. "J.R.
comes to my house
with this handmade binder and an itty-bitty white Bible," the actress
remembered. "She says, 'I think Ann
should have this,' and gave me that Bible. I carry it in the movie. The binder
was full of research and I'm
like, 'Can I have that, too?' All that information enhances the performance."
Like Henson, Hawbaker allowed family knowledge to infuse her work.
"I had aunts in Alabama who had eight or nine dresses, period," said the
designer. "Sunday was
their religious day, but they also had to do laundry to have clothes for the
following week. Taraji repeats
dresses over and over again. We made them look homemade, with repairs built in
to show that she
mended them. Her kids' clothes, too. Ann used to make them dresses from old
cotton flour and rice
"We tracked the walking path from her house to Operation Breakthrough to the
figure out the shoes she'd have to wear. A lot of women where Ann lived wore
patent leather because it
was easy to wash away dust and dirt. She wears one pair the whole time."
These caring details inspired Henson as she gave herself up to the role and
got comfortable in a
body so unlike her own. "There's a difference in the way Southerners dress," she
said, "and then there's
Ann's poverty. The clothes make you feel older because they're so dated. J.R.
did an amazing job."
British actor Babou Ceesay, in the U.S. for the first time to portray Bill
Riddick, was mesmerized.
"Taraji has an uncanny ability to be in a light-hearted conversation with you
(as Taraji), and then, bang,
Ann Atwater sinks into her body and instantly her nature changes. She's suddenly
differently, her voice changes, and you're left thinking how did that happen."
Henson wasn't the only one who shape-shifted.
"I don't know where he got it, but Sam had C.P. down perfectly," said
Riddick, who lived through
the charrette with the real Ellis, and watched Rockwell portray the one-time
Klansman on set nearly five
Producer Telson knew to expect the unexpected from this actor. "I remember
Sam as the horrible
murderer in The Green Mile," she said. "When you cast an actor like that, you
don't know what he'll do,
and that's exactly the feeling we wanted for C.P."
In Rockwell's view, "Taraji and I don't necessarily look like the real
people, but I think we have the
essence of C.P. and Ann, and with the help of wardrobe and makeup, we fuse our
spirits into these roles.
These parts are heavy lifting for sure, but we're theater actors, a lot of us
here are, so we know how to fill
Rockwell never stopped working on cultivating C.P.'s essence.
"Sam was ultra-prepared," said Bissell. "He came to work with earbuds every
day, listening to
C.P.'s voice in old radio interviews. He visited the family and listened to
With C.P. and Mary having passed, Bissell invited their daughter Vickie, son Tim
grandchildren to watch filming of this chapter of their family history.
"It was a day when Sam and Anne Heche had scenes with the kids in the
recalled. "As Tim and Vickie watched, Tim started crying and said, 'That's our
mom and dad.' The
validation from the children and grandchildren was beautiful."
The Ellis kids grew up poor, and with the stress of seeing their parents
struggle to care for their
brother who had a disability, but their parents loved them, and loved each
other. They also had the
chance to see their father do something extraordinary.
Rockwell, who has given the man considerable thought, concluded: "C.P. was no
saint. He did
some rough things. He had low self-esteem and hated himself. Through the
charrette, he realized he had
another purpose and his views and believe were radically changed."
Keep Them Talking ...
To show up in someone else's town and plant yourself between warring factions
of steel and an open mind. "In every situation, one side is upset and the other
is satisfied," Riddick
explained. "As the leader, you need every minute of your saneness to figure out
what's going on, and you
need leadership from both groups."
Durham's charrette was Riddick's fourth. At his third, in 1970, he resolved a
in York, Pennsylvania, where civil unrests had followed a police shooting. A
Time magazine writer
shadowed him during the 10-day process. "It was a great charrette with a
fantastic outcome," he said.
"A charrette is not magic," he continued. "I spent all my time figuring out how
to mix this pot with
two competing groups and turn it into one good stew. If you do a charrette well,
people forget your name.
In Durham, Ann and C.P. are the names they remember."
The Durham charrette astonished actor Babou Ceesay. "To invite the Klan to a
meeting with a
bunch of black people and liberal whites - who in the Klan's eyes are an even
bigger enemy because
they're traitors? To have the courage to listen to people you completely
disagree with, and not disengage,
get up and walk away? Bill Riddick had to transcend his own feelings, be almost
egoless, be willing to be
called names," Ceesay marveled. "But it was all about what we can achieve, not
where we're at right
Casting director Debra Zane brought Shakespearean stage actor Babou Ceesay to
attention. "Can he get the accent to sound authentic, was the biggest question,"
said Bissell, who set out
to prove that Ceesay could. "We sent him the documentary and asked him to do a
scene. Deb Skyped
with him and sent me the video, and he was already about 80% there."
"That was it for me," said Bissell. "Babou was magic the moment I saw him. He
WAS the Bill
Riddick I was looking for."
Dialect coach Denise Woods, who worked with Ceesay, as well as Rockwell and
Heche, got him
to 100 percent. "The accent was hard," Ceesay admitted. "I put in hours and
hours of work so I wouldn't
have to think about it on set, but there are takes where I slip and slide. I
can't sound like Ann Atwater. I
can't sound like C.P. We have three different accents going at once!"
More important than accents, however, is who gets to speak. "In this film,
we're listening to voices
that never get heard," said Ceesay. "Or people who get loud, but nobody really
hears what they're saying,
or what their fear is about."
Ceesay had hoped to meet or at least speak to Riddick before filming began.
"We missed each
other about four times on the phone," he said. "But I had sort of made up my
mind what he was probably
like after watching the documentary so many times. Then Robin came to me on a
Monday and said, 'Bill's
coming to set today!'"
"Having him there could have been huge pressure, but instead gave me 20 times
confidence in everything I did," said Ceesay. "Those three days, I could run to
him and say, 'I want to
push this moment harder,' and he'd say, 'That's what I did in the real story.'
And I'd put that in the next
take. That's priceless."
The mere sight of Riddick and Ceesay together reinforced the genius of
Bissell's choice. "Bill and
Babou are like brothers," said Henson. "They have the same disposition, the same
aura, the same gentle
eyes and jolly laugh."
"The same essence," said Bissell.
Bernstein saw it, too. "Babou has a quiet strength and presence, and Bill was
the quiet man who
made the loud people work together. He got the best out of C.P. and the best out
of Ann for the
betterment of the entire community."
And what did Riddick have to say after his visit to the set?
"Shooting a film is much harder than a charrette!"
Getting It Done ....
Principal photography on THE BEST OF ENEMIES began Monday, May 22, 2017 in
Georgia, with exterior scenes at the "KKK Combat Range."
Bissell remembers the day well. "I got my first set-up - and then we sat for
three hours because of
lightning strikes," he said. "After a strike, you need 30 minutes without
lightning before you can turn the
generators back on. We would almost get to 30, and then lightning would strike
again, and we'd have to
re-set the 30-minute clock. That was my first day as a director."
It bears repeating that Bissell was a first-time writer-director, but no
"Robin's been on a lot of sets - Seabiscuit, The Hunger Games, Pleasantville -
so he knows the
process," said Rockwell, an Academy Award winner and veteran of dozens of movie
sets himself. "He's
an artist, a creative guy and a born director because of his sense of humor and
his compassion for
people. That's very necessary for a director. It's hard work and he's having a
Henson agreed. "Once I decide to do a project, I trust," she said. "From a
meeting, I can tell if the
chemistry is there."
Her trust in Bissell was rewarded on set. "Robin has great ideas for moments
that sometimes we
don't see on the page," she said. "He wants to go deeper."
Bissell had the producers' confidence, too. "A big part of directing is being
able to see it in your
head and communicate what you see to other people," said Telson. "Robin can do
both. He has produced
big movies and you learn a lot sitting in that chair - what to do and what not
to do. His D.P. is painting
pictures, and the communication works really well between them."
Bissell knew his budget would affect how his D.P. could shoot. "In a
contemporary movie, you
might use a lot of hand-held to create camera movement, but in a period drama, I
didn't want the
audience to feel the camera," he explained. "I wanted a more classic feel.
Because of our extremely tight
schedule, we had to pick and choose when we could go in close. But having this
incredible cast allowed
me to get most shots in two or three takes."
Producer Berenson had suggested several directors of photography to Bissell,
Lanzenberg. "Matt said, 'Watch Age of Adeline for the palette, lighting and
camera movement'," Bissell
recalled. "It covers several different time periods, too. So, I watched it and
knew immediately he was the
DP for this film! David happened to be filming in Atlanta when we were there for
our first scout. Once he
knew Jeannine was on board with us, he was in, too."
"Jeannine" is four-time Oscar-nominated production designer Jeannine
Oppewall, and Bissell
knew that an outstanding production designer was an absolute necessity for THE
BEST OF ENEMIES.
For one thing, the film was shot in the Atlanta area, not in Durham. For
another, it was a period
film with a modest budget. "On this budget with 29 days, we couldn't have done
this film without these
seasoned keys," said Bissell. "Jeannine is an old friend. She's a perfectionist
with impeccable taste so
once we chose a location, I knew each set would be perfect when I showed up to
shoot on the day."
Perfect, but not easy.
"Period films are always twice as difficult as contemporary films when it
comes to design," said
Oppewall, whose credits include the spectacular period film L.A. Confidential.
"Atlanta today is steel and
glass high rises and millions of people. 1971 Durham was a very small city. That
meant that the
vast majority of the sets had to be found in little towns outside of Atlanta,
and every location required a lot
of work from the design department.
"C.P.'s gas station was an especially big challenge," she continued, "given
how different gas
stations today are from the way they were in 1970. There were not many candidate
locations to choose
The production found its period-appropriate houses and office buildings in
nearby cities such as
Cartersville and Macon, as well as the south side of Atlanta, College Park and
East Atlanta. "The most
important thing about shooting Durham 1971 is architecture that predates 1971,"
"Jeannine is a really vigilant production designer who did an enormous amount
of research and scouted
really hard with the locations department. I credit her entirely with the
authenticity of the look of the film."
Costumes, cars, menus and signage all had to pass muster.
"I know what a piece of pie costs in 1971 Durham," Bernstein joked.
Hawbaker had 300-some extras to dress. "They set the flavor and tone," said
the designer. "And
that's where we were able to have the dashikis and Afros, the more liberal
class, the student class seated
next to the Klansmen."
Mixed among the background actors for singing scenes at the charrette were
members of a small
local church choir. "Whenever there's a scene that has anything to do with
gospel music, you know you're
going to have fun that day," said Henson. "How can it not move you? Especially
when it's a film where
"Yes! I want this story to light a fire for people who want change," said
Henson. "Racism and hate
are learned. Look at what happens when a cold heart turns warm. This really
Bernstein added a practical note. "If people like C.P. and Ann can find
common ground, maybe
there's hope for all of us," he said. "Fight for your beliefs, but if you really
want to effect change,
understand the people you're fighting with."
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