Picture it: Durham, North Carolina. 1971. Ann Atwater (Taraji P. Henson) is a civil rights activist. C.P. Ellis (Sam Rockwell) is the Exalted Cyclops of the KKK (the KKK should clearly not be allowed to make up their own titles). The two are about to clash over school integration.
City council is far from unbiased. Some will physically turn their backs on a person of colour, others will call on their friends in the klan to bolster their numbers. It’s not exactly the kind of town ripe for integration, and it likely wouldn’t have occurred to them had the black school not burned down, forcing some drastic decisions. Bill Riddick (Babou Ceesay) is given the unenviable, perhaps insurmountable task of mediating the two sides to negotiate a compromise, one city council will abide. A charrette, he calls it, though no one’s ever heard of the thing. or a collaborative, intensive community planning session. Riddick is a black man who has the magical ability to earn concessions from either side, but the “sides” aren’t exactly fairly drawn. If black vs white is enough to make your skin crawl, imagine black vs racists, men in hoods who won’t even concede that people of colour are people, who would wish the people sitting beside them dead, and in fact have taken shots at them.
1971 isn’t that long ago. It’s during Henson’s lifetime, and Rockwell’s.
The costume and makeup department have had a whole job of de-sexualizing Taraji P. Henson for this role. Her face is unadorned, her boobs are down to her belt. But her strength and presence are as keenly felt as ever.
The charrette ends up being a fascinating glimpse into a community – in 1971, as an attempt at a solution, and in 2019 as a reflection of the time. It’s a great reminder that it’s much harder to hate people you know. Humanizing the other side is always an eye-opener. These select community representatives spent a week together, discussing the issue, but also eating lunch side by side and taking field trips, sitting knee to knee on a yellow bus.
As interesting as I find the topic, the film itself is a little uneven, and thus, a little difficult to like without reservation. Writer-director Robin Bissell sympathizes with KKK president Ellis enough to give him a full backstory: a disabled son, a struggling business, an ambivalent wife. Meanwhile, Atwater, a real-life grassroots activist who fought the war on poverty, is given much, much less. Still, the two become…friends? Perhaps too strong a word. But familiarity reduces contempt. They are no longer just stereotypes to each other. And the fact is: perhaps this de-segregation thing is better for poor white folks than city council wants them to know.
This is how barriers are broken: regular people just listening to each other as best they can. That’s a lesson that still needs learning. That we have the power to influence each other, not by arguing, but by trying to understand. Sure it takes courage to stand up to your enemies, but it takes far more to stand up to your friends when you see that they are wrong.