Opinion

The legislature cut Durham’s closeup in ‘The Best of Enemies.’

Bill Riddick was integral to event which inspired ‘The Best of Enemies’

"I wasn't looking for a miracle," said Bill Riddick, the man who brought KKK member C.P. Ellis and African-American activist Ann Atwater together to discuss desegregating Durham schools. But as the new film "The Best of Enemies" shows, he got one.
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"I wasn't looking for a miracle," said Bill Riddick, the man who brought KKK member C.P. Ellis and African-American activist Ann Atwater together to discuss desegregating Durham schools. But as the new film "The Best of Enemies" shows, he got one.

“Alright, Mr. DeMille, I am ready for my closeup.”

That’s one of moviedom’s most iconic lines, uttered by a delusional Nora Desmond in Sunset Boulevard. The City of Durham, too, was ready for its closeup on the silver screen when the movie “The Best of Enemies” opened recently at theaters across the country.

Unfortunately for Durham and North Carolina, the most Durham-ish movie of all time was not shot in Durham. It was shot in Georgia because our shortsighted legislature abolished all of the tax incentives that at one point made the state an appealing destination for movie makers.

I tell ya’, for a while there film crews were descending upon North Carolina in such numbers that you couldn’t swing a turpentine-soaked cat without hitting one.

Some people even took to calling Wilmington, the site where many TV shows and movies were filmed, “Wilmywood.”

Thank goodness that never caught on.

Sam Rockwell and Taraji Henson were sensational and should get a lot of consideration come awards season for portraying Durhamite klan leader C.P. Ellis and community activist Ann Atwater in “The Best of Enemies.”

Those two real-life American heroes, as opposite as two people can be, came together over 10 days in Durham in 1971 to save the city’s schools and, quite possibly, the city itself.

Durham is celebrating its 150th anniversary. Had Ellis remained intractable and Atwater remained angry, it’s unlikely the city would’ve made it this far.

The movie, as wonderful as it was, suffered from its dearth of Durham. That’s especially true for anyone who has spent time in the Bull City and who knows its distinctive features — the tobacco warehouses, its neighborhoods such as Hayti, the baseball stadium.

Whatever else one says about Durham, the city has character. None of it came through in the film, though.

If they decided to remake “Bull Durham,” would they have to shoot it in Georgia? With a Republican-led legislature, yes.

Speaking of “Bull Durham,” the star of that movie was Kevin Costner, who also appeared — briefly — in “The Big Chill.” (Spoiler: he was the corpse being dressed while “Heard It Through the Grapevine” played in the first minute of the flick.)

Costner said he had told all of his friends and relatives about his first movie, but was mortified to discover that 98 percent of his scenes had been cut out.

That’s how I felt when I saw “The Best of Enemies.” I’d told friends all over America about the movie set in Durham, encouraging them to go see the Bull City in all of its big screen glory.

What they saw was a generic version of Durham.

By the time the credits on the movie stopped rolling, I was the only person in the theater. I swear, it took 10 minutes for the hundreds of names to scroll down the screen. Each of those names represented jobs — caterers, security, drivers, best boys — that could have have been performed by tax-paying North Carolina residents.

Miss Henson and Mr. Rockwell would have frequented restaurants, hotels and bars - maybe even a Piggly Wiggly - in the Triangle, and tourists would have flocked there so they could take a selfie in the spot where Sam Rockwell presumably bought a bag of cracklins.

If you haven’t seen the movie yet - shame on you.

Go see it. It was a “proud-to-be-an-American” flick whose story no one would have believed had it not actually happened. I went in knowing it was based on a true story, but still involuntarily rolled my eyes when C.P. tore up his klan membership card and pledged to vote for school integration.

The morning after seeing the movie, I called Bill Riddick, the man who forced C.P. and Ann together. Surely, I said, that scene was some Hollywood hokum added for dramatic purposes, right? C.P. didn’t really tear up his klan membership card right there in front of everybody, did he?

Yes, Riddick assured me. “I was sitting five feet from him when he did it.”

Wow. They took this remarkable American story out of Durham — but they couldn’t take the Durham out of this remarkable American story.

Barry Saunders, a former News & Observer columnist, writes The Saunders Report blog where this column first appeared.



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