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'Best of Enemies' premieres in the Bull City

The film, which stars Academy Award nominee Taraji P. Henson and Academy Award winner Sam Rockwell, focuses on an unlikely friendship between a civil rights activist and Klu Klux Klan leader that helped lead to school desegregation in Durham in 1971.

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Kathy Hanrahan, Out
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DURHAM, N.C. — "The Best of Enemies" might not have been filmed in Durham, but the upcoming film is all about a big moment in the city's history - desegregation.
A special screening of the film, which stars Academy Award nominee Taraji P. Henson and Academy Award winner Sam Rockwell, took place Tuesday night at Carolina Theatre of Durham. The movie was filmed in Georgia.

Henson walked the red carpet and attended the sold-out screening.

The movie focuses on an unlikely friendship between civil rights activist Ann Atwater and Ku Klux Klan leader C.P. Ellis that helped lead to school desegregation in Durham in 1971. The film is based on the true story chronicled in the book "The Best of Enemies: Race and Redemption in the New South” by Osha Gray Davidson.

"Danny Strong, the co-creator and executive producer of ‘Empire’ gave me this script. It’s almost like he wanted me to do ‘Empire’ so I could do this movie," Henson told WRAL Tuesday.

After reading the script, she was shocked to find out the story was true.

"I Googled it and boy oh boy I was amazed," she said. "I thought, we gotta do this."

The busy shooting schedule of "Empire" kept Henson and Strong busy, but the recent presidential election spurred them into action.

"Then the election of 2016 happened, and the climate started to change and not for the best, so I called Danny and I was like, 'Danny, we have to make this movie, and we have to make it now. We need this story. We need to leave the people with some hope,'" Henson said.

In the film, Bill Riddick brings Atwater and Ellis together for a charrette – a two-week community symposium about what to do following at fire at East End Elementary, which displaced black students. Riddick's mediation helped show the two leaders that they had common ground – the love for their families.

"I think, historically, Durham needs to look at this movie and kind of look at where they are today. We might look different, we might worship different, but Durham is one town," Riddick said on the red carpet Tuesday night.

For Henson, the film's message is a timely one.

"It is very important because we see these hashtags going around 'Love Wins,' 'Love Always Wins' and it’s the truth. This is a living testimony of love winning. These two people right here couldn’t be more polar opposite," she said. "They were both passionate in their beliefs, but Ann had to tap into love. And love is what changed the hateful heart. And it is possible because hate is taught. That man – he wasn’t born to hate. If he was, Ann wouldn’t have been able to change his heart.”

Henson also credits Riddick with helping Ann change and grow.

"She’s being changed too because Bill Riddick is laying on her just as well. Showing that mirror up to her face as well saying, 'You are just as bad as he is,'" Henson said.

Henson said she enjoyed '"sparring" on screen with Rockwell.

"He is an incredible character actor," she said. "He’s not a selfish actor. I’m not a selfish actor. I need my scene partner. I want to have fun. I want to play. I want to spar."

While she didn't get to meet Atwater (she died in 2016), Henson based her portrayal on recordings of Atwater and Ellis' descriptions of her. To physically embody the role, Henson wore a prosthetic suit to add weight to her small frame.

"The great costumers made me a nice little prosthetic suit," she said. "When you take on characters, I shouldn’t walk like myself. I have to move like this woman. She was very earthy, planted in the earth. So, I needed to feel heavier."

She said she asked "The Best of Enemies" costumers to consult with those who dress up Tyler Perry as Madea.

"Then, they got it right,” she said.

The movie featured local actors, including Kevin Iannucci, who played Ellis' son. He said the role was a dream come true.

"I felt really honored to be in this movie. It felt awesome," he said.

For others, like Duke University's Ben Reese, the movie is a chance to honor the memory of his old friend. He keeps a picture of himself and Atwater on his phone, taken at her last birthday party.

"She's just a dear friend, a role model and someone who I miss," he said.

Henson is a native of Washington, D.C., but she did spend every summer visiting family in Scotland Neck. She also regularly heads back to the Raleigh area to visit her aunt and uncle. Filming a movie about Durham was something very close to her heart.

"I’ve been down here so much. I spent so many summers. It's like destiny for me I guess. I'm very proud to bring this film to life and to bring it here to where it actually happened. I’m sure the people here are very proud," she said.

"The Best of Enemies" hits theaters on April 5.


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