When I made plans to see “Best of Enemies,” I prepared to see the White savior movie about which I was warned. Why did I see it? Because community organizing is an important part of public outreach with local governments. However, instead of seeing the White savior movie I expected, I was surprised that the movie was less about the relationship between the two activists and more about the ecosystem in which interracial activism takes places. Anyone who thinks that segregation has no effect in the current era is woefully misguided, and should consider that communities are actually more segregated than during the Civil Rights Movement.
One of the most pivotal points in the movie was during a city council meeting to discuss a landlord’s property maintenance. The first anyone sees of Ann Atwater is a meeting where she is asking for the issue to be placed on the agenda for the city council meeting on behalf of the tenants. Ponder that: enough people were concerned about the care of a building that they wanted to approach city council, and city council was reluctant to hear about it. A common misconception about Black people and local issues is that Black people fail to appear at the meetings; often Black people show up, and are ignored by the local government. Even when a Black school is set on fire, the city council votes to keep Black students in an unsafe school and would have considered that the end of the matter if not for the engagement of the NAACP, who sued the City of Durham.
Another important aspect of the movie is the completion of a charrette, which was carried out to determine whether Durham should integrate the schools. The reason the charrette was carried out was two-fold: 1) so that the judge hearing the lawsuit could absolve himself of the responsibility of deciding on integration; and 2) so that a Black man could bear all the vulnerability of such a contentious issue. Often, people of color and especially Black people are told that there are certain criteria that would make them more palatable to the dominant narrative. Throughout this movie, there is a constant reminder that nothing Black people were doing was sufficient to allow their children to attend school with White children. Moreover, the local government was shifting the blame of its dispassionate policies on the very people harmed by them.
Finally, the audience is able to see some, though admittedly not much of the Black activist world, which should have had a bigger role to demonstrate its plethora of attitudes. One of the Black committee members for the charrette made a very important point: when Black people integrate, it has nothing to do with a desperate desire to be near White people, as is often portrayed. Black people know they will be subject to emotional abuse, and by integrating the schools, they know their children will be in difficult circumstances without protection or support from the staff. The desire for integration was about access to infrastructure, namely a school in this case–and these days, still it is often access to education. Integration has been about the degraded conditions of segregated communities of color in comparison to the heavily invested and resourced predominantly White communities. After all, who would want their children going to school in a smoky building?
Under no circumstances should this film be considered the final word on this interaction because there is actually a book which was the inspiration of the movie. Still, to understand the White perspective on integration and public outreach from local governments, this movie is crucial. After seeing this movie, I feel it would be inappropriate to tell any person of color that “going to the meetings” or “voting” is all that person would have to do to make changes in a neighborhood.
Note: The still above is directly from the Internet Movie Database.