Tag Archives: Taraji P. Henson

The Best of Enemies (2019, Robin Bissell)

Chris Rock has a joke about waiting to see if the evening news—it’s an old joke—report on a crime is going to have a Black perpetrator or a White one, just so he (Rock, a Black man) can figure out if his white coworkers are going to ask him if he knew the perp (if he’s Black).

In other words, I had to check and see if Best of Enemies writer, director, and producer Robin Bissell was a White person. He is. He’s also fifty, which… isn’t a demographic to be making The Best of Enemies in 2019. Or ever, really. There was never a good time for a fifty year-old White guy to make a movie about a North Carolina Klan leader in the early seventies realizing Black people are people because they can be nice to him. Best of Enemies is basically the reverse of those White “liberals” who tell Black people to stop complaining or they’ll have to vote GOP next time when, in reality, you know they all voted for Gary Johnson or Jill Stein anyway. It’s about lead Sam Rockwell—the aforementioned Klan leader—realizing not just Black people are people but also how the system is rigged against poor Whites and Blacks alike and that rigging seems to be the point.

Less on the second part, however, because it might be interesting to see that development in Rockwell’s life and the film avoids any interesting developments.

I’m going at Enemies a little harder than usual for a few reasons. First, Taraji P. Henson is top-billed. She’s the Black woman community organizer who works with Rockwell and contributes to his ability to see the humanity in… you know, humans. Rah for him, sure, but a movie? Not sure it’s worth a movie. Especially since the movie sets itself up to be this great anti-buddy buddy pic between Henson and Rockwell and it’s not. Henson, it’ll turn out somewhere in the very lengthy two hour plus runtime, is red herring. She’s got nothing to do in the movie. Not even supporting player scraps after the movie shoves Rockwell into the lead. So The Best of Enemies, which ostensibly is about two “born enemies”—a Klan leader and, you know, a Black person—becoming something together, is really just a White Savior movie for Rockwell. And he’s not even the most interesting White Savior in the picture.

John Gallagher Jr.’s the most interesting White Savior. He’s just in a bit part, which is too bad because he’s a lot more useful a character than some of the bigger stunt casts in bit parts—fifth-billed Wes Bentley, for example; around to be the creepy, greasy Klan guy who you think is going to crack and kill someone.

And then there’s Nick Searcy, who’s—as usual—quite good. This time he’s quite good as a piece of shit upper class racist who gets Rockwell’s poor White Klan boys to do his dirty work. Is the film aware of… Nick Searcy’s optics? Like. You can leave a lot at the door. You can’t leave Nick Searcy at the door. It’s not a good enough part for it really to be worth it. Though no one’s part is really good enough.

Henson’s great. Even after Bissell’s scared to give her scenes with other Black people. Or maybe he’s not scared. Maybe he just doesn’t have the interest in her story. She and Rockwell are working on a charrette, which doesn’t make the Apple dictionary (says something, I imagine), and is “any collaborative session in which a group of designers drafts a solution to a design problem.” The problem in Enemies is school integration. Rockwell and Henson end up co-chairs, forced into working together by facilitator Babou Ceesay. Cessay’s in town doing the charrette because the judge doesn’t want to have to rule on school integration and wants to pass the buck.

It’s not a metaphor for the film’s proclivity for passing the buck, but only because Bissell wouldn’t know how to do a metaphor.

Technically, the film’s fine. It’s clearly on too low of a budget to do the period well. Almost no extras in the exteriors of strangely empty streets and so on. Bissell’s not bad at composition. He’s perfectly pedestrian, which does the film no help in getting over the budget constraints. Presumably most of the money went to Rockwell and Henson, who both do their best, but… there’s only so far they can go with the script and what the script gives them. Or, in both their cases, what the script doesn’t give them. Henson just doesn’t get material. Rockwell gets material but no character development arc. The whole point of the movie is shitbag racists are people too but Bissell never wants more than a caricature from Rockwell. Maybe a 3D one, but still just a caricature. You can see Rockwell getting bored in Enemies. The part doesn’t give him anything to do. Not really. Not sincerely. Some of his best scenes in the movie ought to be the ones where he’s just hanging out with wife Anne Heche, only there’s so much expository dumping in those scenes—because Heche isn’t a big-time racist, she just loves one. So she makes him different than the Bentleys or the Searcys of the film. Her and Rockwell having a son with Downs in the South in 1971 and still, you know, loving him. Best of Enemies exploits its cast in a lot of ways—after a while, if she’s not just building up Rockwell’s humanity, Henson’s part is reduced to crying helplessly—after a certain point, Bissell can’t even pretend he’s not just objectifying anguish… but no one gets it worse than Kevin Iannucci as the son. Bissell’s a callous filmmaker.

Probably because he can’t figure out how to make the movie work. Possibly because it’s not Rockwell’s movie but Bissell can’t imagine it any other way.

It’s a waste of the cast. Maybe not Bentley but everyone else. Bentley’s fine he’s just not promising. Everyone else is at least promising. Like Bruce McGill. Or Nicholas Logan, who’s creepy as the bland blond Klan redneck (versus Bentley’s greaser one, who needs a Johnny Reb cap to be distinct).

Really good songs on the soundtrack. Seventies stuff. Because they were listening to early Bowie in South Carolina in 1971. It’s Bissell bumbling his way through softening the audience with nostalgia.

Is there a good movie in the true story? Probably. The clips over the end credits of the real people Rockwell and Henson are playing is a better movie than the previous two hours and five minutes and they’re just clips.

There’s some good acting work in the film and Jeannine Oppewall’s production design is good and whoever did the line producing did well, but… The Best of Enemies is way too shallow. Bissell knows there’s a movie in the story, he just can’t find it. Especially not in his script.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by Robin Bissell; screenplay by Bissell, based on the book by Osha Gray Davidson; director of photography, David Lanzenberg; edited by Harry Yoon; music by Marcelo Zarvos; production designer, Jeannine Oppewall; produced by Matt Berenson, Fred Bernstein, Bissell, Tobey Maguire, Matthew Plouffe, Danny Strong, and Dominique Telson; released by STX Films.

Starring Sam Rockwell (C.P. Ellis), Taraji P. Henson (Ann Atwater), Anne Heche (Mary Ellis), Nick Searcy (Garland Keith), Babou Ceesay (Bill Riddick), Wes Bentley (Floyd Kelly), Nicholas Logan (Wiley Yates), John Gallagher Jr. (Lee Tromblay), Caitlin Mehner (Maddy Mays), Kevin Iannucci (Larry Ellis), and Bruce McGill (Carvie Oldham).


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Hidden Figures (2016, Theodore Melfi)

In the first scene of Hidden Figures, the film makes it immediately clear there’s going to be quite a bit of self-awareness. The film is based on the true story of three black women who were instrumental to NASA’s–and the space program’s–success. They’re working at NASA in the early sixties, during segregation, doing harder jobs better than the white guys working at NASA. And there’s an awareness. Janelle Monáe, in the flashiest lead role, gets the least to do, but she does get tasked with offering commentary on the situations at hand.

Director Melfi, who co-wrote the screenplay with Allison Schroeder, depends a lot on his cast. Nothing in his direction gets any of the scenes done. For example, Melfi underplays it with Taraji P. Henson, who’s the closest thing the film’s got to a protagonist (but the film doesn’t want to have one, which gets to be a problem in the third act). While Monáe, albeit outside work, gets to have a developed relationship with Aldis Hodge (as her less than supportive husband) and second-billed Octavia Spencer gets to have this workplace unpleasantness with Kirsten Dunst, Henson’s got supportive boss Kevin Costner, who she never gets to have a moment with. She’s got wormy supervisor Jim Parsons, who she never gets to have a moment with. There are fill-in moments, but none suggesting Parsons and Costner are people and not caricatures.

It’d be fine if they were caricatures, maybe even appropriate (though Costner’s not–he gets a movie star scene in the film), but if they are caricatures, giving them their little unspoken courtesies to Henson is even more problematic.

Hidden Figures weathers those problems with some very reliable materials–the history is on the film’s side and all three lead performances are great. While Monáe gets to be showy for most of the film, only having to move aside towards the end, when it tries to become a special effects extravaganza thriller just to find a finish, and Spencer’s part is underwritten but convinces the viewer it isn’t, Henson gets the big stuff. And the script, even though she’s got a romance going on outside her saving Costner and Parsons’s butts with math, doesn’t like letting Henson do anything. Monáe does things, Spencer does things, Henson quietly does the math. And she’s exceptional doing the math. Melfi’s best direction is with Henson, simply because he’s just letting the camera watch her performance too.

Technically, the film’s solid without being exceptional. Mandy Walker’s photography is fine, but Melfi’s not ambitious. Maybe the score gets a little much at the end, when Melfi’s tackling the special effects extravaganza with absolutely no personality. Despite some gorgeous production design (courtesy Wynn Thomas), Hidden Figures is oddly absent mise-en-scène.

The ambition is instead with the film itself, presenting these three women completely aware of their exploitation, completely aware of their constraints, and excelling regardless. The sad part of Henson not getting resolution is how well Spencer and Monáe make out with it. Spencer and Dunst’s arc is an uncomfortable, angering one. But it’s a mature way of handling it. The script’s got a narrative arc for that subplot. For Henson? Well, it’s got the Friendship 7.

Not to rag on Melfi too much more, but there’s a difference between acknowledging other films’ handling of the same material without just giving up and pretending to be Apollo 13 for fifteen minutes. It’s his lack of personality. Even Costner’s got some personality, even if it’s nonsensically only for Parsons’s benefit, as they have a moment together.

Hidden Figures is a movie fully aware white guys don’t have to be the leads but it’s the white guys who get that learning moment together. And let’s not even touch on the problematic nature of superhero John Glenn (Glen Powell is fine, it’s just a bland part).

But once you get through the problems and appreciate the film’s accomplishments–and those lead performances–it’s clear Hidden Figures’s success isn’t contingent on a flawless narrative structure. It’s historical, after all, and a positive “real life” moment is hard to resist, but it does distract from its characters. Because even if what was happening in reality was important, in Hidden Figures, it’s Henson, Spencer, and Monáe who are important and deserve the time.

Melfi just doesn’t know how to build tension. Thank goodness he’s got actors who know how to essay it however.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Theodore Melfi; screenplay by Allison Schroeder and Melfi, based on the book by Margot Lee Shetterly; director of photography, Mandy Walker; edited by Peter Teschner; music by Hans Zimmer, Pharrell Williams, and Benjamin Wallfisch; production designer, Wynn Thomas; produced by Peter Chernin, Donna Gigliotti, Melfi, Jenno Topping, and Williams; released by 20th Century Fox.

Starring Taraji P. Henson (Katherine Goble), Octavia Spencer (Dorothy Vaughan), Janelle Monáe (Mary Jackson), Kevin Costner (Al Harrison), Kirsten Dunst (Mrs. Mitchell), Jim Parsons (Paul Stafford), Mahershala Ali (Colonel Jim Johnson), Aldis Hodge (Levi Jackson), and Glen Powell (John Glenn).


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