The True Story Behind 'The Best of Enemies'

History was made thanks to what might be the unlikeliest of pairs — a black woman and a white supremacist.

Even though the Supreme Court ruled segregated schools unconstitutional in 1954, it took until 1971 for Durham, North Carolina, to integrate theirs.

History was made thanks to what might be the unlikeliest of pairs— a black woman and a white supremacist. That’s the basis of the new movie "The Best of Enemies," which tells the story of Ann Atwater, a civil rights activist, and C.P. Ellis, a Ku Klux Klan leader.

Not one to mince words, Atwater recalled the moment when she and Ellis took a good look at themselves and turned things around for the greater good.

"He was upset and I was upset. And he was cussin’ ... and I was cussin’. ...  And I couldn't stand white folks anyway,” Atwater said in an interview with North Carolina’s School for Conversion.

“The children talked to us saying [they] wanted to go to school with each other. That's when we looked at each other like, ‘Fool, we've been arguing about the wrong thing.’"

Much to their and everyone else's surprise, they formed a friendship.

Starring Taraji P. Henson as Atwater and Sam Rockwell as Ellis, the film explores how their relationship evolved through being forced to work together.

At the time, Atwater was working as a community organizer.

"She went up against a lot of men who had a lot of power like C. P. Ellis and she did not back down,” Henson said in an interview with film studio behind the movie, STX. “She was a hero."

Ellis was the Exalted Grand Cyclops of the KKK.

News of the integration spawned uproar. In order to manage it, then-City Councilman Bill Riddick called a charrette, appointing both Atwater and Ellis in charge.

“They said I had [sold out] because I worked with a Klansman. And he changed from a Klansman to a Christian and they said I had sold out. Said he was a n**** lover. And we was chosen to be co-chairs to integrate,” Atwater continued.  

This story intrigued Osha Gray Davidson, who wrote "The Best of Enemies: Race and Redemption in the New South" back in 1991, which inspired the movie.

"It's getting a movie bump," Davidson told of the book. "The Hollywood bump. Which is great, I mean I wrote this book 20-something years ago and the story has been in development movie hell for a long time and it's finally coming out."

He got to witness Atwater and Ellis’ dynamic firsthand.

"I spent a few years doing research, going down to Durham for a couple weeks at a time interviewing Ann and C.P. and interviewing historical figures and going to archives because we didn't have the internet back then to look things up on," Davidson joked.

The experience made him question how he saw race.

"When white people say 'I don't have a racist bone in my body,’ it's like, 'Did I get de-boned or something?' Because otherwise, you grow up in a white supremacist society. It's just a fact that you’re gonna have biases and prejudices. Like I do. But the thing is to work on that. To acknowledge it and then, like C.P., to overcome that.”

In turn, it widened Davidson’s scope.

"I was really interested to see how — you know, we have this myth of a classless society, democracy for all, no racism, and then there's the uncomfortable truth of our problematic history," Davidson said. "So it was the intersection of race, class and gender that allowed this story to come together and explore those issues. And sadly, those issues are just as relevant today and still need to be worked on."

Even if he didn't know, Atwater told him.

"I don't remember the specifics of what it was about, but she pointed out something I was just seeing in terms of class. And she said, 'Well, uh, you’re forgetting that black people don't have that luxury.’ And yep. I still have a whole lot to learn. And I still do today. But the journey is worth it."

Nearly 50 years later, some of those same prejudices both Atwater and Ellis battled and overcame still plague society today, said Davidson.

"That's the dream. The fight continues. If we think that it's timeless, that kind of means that we've given up hope. Then they won't struggle. They won't fight. But it's time for all Americans, specifically white Americans to join this battle. To make America live up to its promise and confront white privilege, our own racism," Davidson said.

Solely because of his friendship with Atwater, Ellis left the KKK and never returned, despite threats to his life.

He converted to Christianity, and even began to champion civil rights.

Ellis died in 2005. Atwater gave his eulogy.

Atwater continued her work, spending the last 12 years of her life teaching at North Carolina's School for Conversion, mentoring the next generation of young activists.

She passed away in 2016.

The school's Ann Atwater Freedom Library makes sure her legacy and teachings continue.

"God gave me, No. 1, the gift to reach out and touch. And when I feel that somebody calls me for some help, God wants me to go on record as saying, 'I tried.' All I had was God holding my back," Atwater said. “And he still got my back, as long as I keep trusting in him."

"My hope for this movie is that people come away realizing that if these two could work together to end white supremacy and class oppression, then we damn well better be able to do it," Davidson said.