Taraji P. Henson on why ‘The Best Of Enemies’ is no ‘Green Book’

The actress portrays Ann Atwater, one of the civil-rights movement’s most pivotal activists.

It’s almost time for The Best Of Enemies to hit theaters and it turns out the film that stars Taraji P. Henson as civil rights activist Ann Atwater has a lot more to offer than some may presume. The movie is set in Durham, North Carolina following the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education ruling and is inspired by the riveting true story of the desegregation of the city’s school district.

The film that took almost 15 years to create comes shortly after the controversial Best Picture winner, Green Book caused a major stir in the industry. Despite the obvious comparisons, The Best of Enemies is already proving itself to be a truly authentic story that’s stepping away from the “white savior” complex that has been bothering some theater-goers lately.

TheGrio sat down with Taraji P. Henson to find out why she took on the role and what makes it different than what some folks are expecting. The film centers on the unlikely friendship forged by Ann Atwater and C.P. Ellis, a local Ku Klux Klan leader.

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For Henson, the powerful message of the film comes at a time when the nation needs it the most.

“This is timely, the message, and it’s needed now, right now,” she says.

After allegations of white-washing followed the November release of Oscar-award winning movie Green Book, many are leary about the intentions of The Best Of Enemies. Ask the cast and real-life characters, and they’ll tell you that the film and the story it portrays is  accurate. In fact, it’s Atwater’s character who is and was the true change agent of the times.

“She changes him through love, and they really are the same person. Even in their passion, even in fighting for what they believe in, even though they were both on opposite sides of the railroad. They were actually the same person, and went about going to get what they wanted in the same way, which made them similar,” Henson explains. “Until Anne stepped back, and changed her approach, and opened her view up to love, and really took him in as a person, that’s when change started to happen.”

And while the resemblance between Henson and Atwater may not be the strongest, as noted by director Robin Bissell, who himself befriended Atwater before her 2005 passing, Taraji P. Henson and the fiery activist have a lot more in common than not.

“I love justice for all. I’m a Virgo.It’s in the stars for me. It’s in my DNA. I always took up for people who were being bullied. It’s in my nature,” says Henson. “I love to help people. If I make it, I’m always reaching back, making sure everybody’s getting paid. That’s just me, and I understand how she thinks. It’s no fun if everybody’s not having fun.”

When it comes to matters of fun, Henson says that creating a lively and energetic set is the key to maintaining uplifted spirits in spite of the hate and racism that the movie highlights.

“We had fun. And I find when I do movies with a heavy subject matter. You have to to live in between scenes or else it’s a dark depressed set. We laughed a lot, and we talked a lot. We could not understand why people are like this. He [Sam Rockwell] would come to my chair scratching his head with his fat stomach on like, ‘Can you believe people actually believe this shit?’”

Adding to the validity of the film, civil-rights organizer and educator Bill Riddick, whose character is portrayed by actor Babou Ceesay, played a huge part in the of production. Riddick admits he couldn’t be more pleased with the final result.

“First of all, it’s based on the truth. And when you base something on the truth that has a good ending, it’s a lot easier to tell than if you have a bad ending. So I think with the ending of this being positive, it was not as difficult had Ann and CP not gotten together.”

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We’re almost 50 years since the events of The Best Of Enemies occurred and race relations is still dominating the national conversation. With such a polarizing president and a nation divided, Riddick says race and class are two topics that must be addressed.

“Obviously, we’re dealing with two issues. One is race and one is class. And both of those issues have dealt us a hard blow in the sense of us coming together. At some point in this country, this whole divisiveness must stop, in order for us to be a profitable nation, it has to stop. And I don’t know when it’s going to stop but I think it has to,” he says.

“You have to start by examining your own biases…That’s the problem I had the first day of the charrette. I had to conquer why I felt a certain way about these people. And once I got past that, I think I was able to model what changes they might need to make.”

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The end result is a film that is heartwarming and accurately portrays our history and the struggles our community has overcome. You’ll be inspired by both the astounding cast, and the real-life story about how love can transform even the most evil of situations.

The Best of Enemies hits theaters April 5.