Orange County

How a documentary on race relations in Durham may help Charlottesville heal

Chapel Hill film-maker Diane Bloom will screen her 2002 documentary “An Unlikely Friendship” in Charlottesville, Virginia, on Jan. 24, 2018.
Chapel Hill film-maker Diane Bloom will screen her 2002 documentary “An Unlikely Friendship” in Charlottesville, Virginia, on Jan. 24, 2018.

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For a documentary film released in 2002 about 1970s race relations in Durham,, the message in “An Unlikely Friendship” still resonates.

The film shows how Ann Atwater, a leading black activist, and C.P. Ellis, an Exalted Grand Cyclops of the Ku Klux Klan, developed a friendship beginning in the early 1970s when race relations in Durham teetered dangerously. Chapel Hill filmmaker Diane Bloom will be presenting it in Charlottesville, Virginia, on Jan. 24.

Bloom, a professor at UNC-Chapel Hill’s School of Public Health, said she still gets requests each year to screen her film and discuss her relationship with Atwater and Ellis. The request for the Charlottesville screening came after last summer’s violent clash between white supremacists and counterprotesters and the recent turn of events in national politics, she said.

“With the presidential election, there’s just been a real renewal of interest in the film,” Bloom said. “Things are so much more divisive than they were. There’s so much more open hatred and demonstrations than there has been for many years.”

Bloom remains optimistic, though.

“The reaction is usually incredibly positive,” Bloom said. “One thing I’ve learned is that people are hungry for hope and that things can be better. I think they find the film extremely hopeful because for people as far apart as Ann and C.P. to come together and actually form a lifelong friendship [shows that] any of us can do the same thing.”

Charlottesville has a history of holding discussions on race relations, and this showing will coincide with the city’s month-long Community MLK Celebration. The film will be shown at the Jefferson School which was the first black school in Charlottesville and now is a heritage center that aims to preserve the legacy of the African-American community of Charlottesville-Albemarle, Virginia.

Bloom, who also has screened the film for businesses like Apple and AOL, said she is amazed that the film has lived as long as it has since being released 16 years ago.

“I just thought it was really more for the moment,” Bloom said. “Most documentary films have just a couple of years of lifespan. But I still get calls to come and speak about it. People are still buying the DVDs. And on PBS, it shows every year on 70 stations through American public television.”

The film has played at 26 film festivals and has won five national awards. It also airs annually on PBS.

Joe Johnson: 919-419-6678, @JEJ_HSNews

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