Durham, North Carolina, 1971. Do you remember where you were that year? I was finishing my first year at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia, not that far away. And yet it might as well have been on another planet.
When I watched the movie The Best of Enemies the other night, my first reaction to the opening line was, “Where was I at that time?” Being just finished my freshman year in college that summer, I was probably at home in Wheaton, MD, hundreds of miles away, but the center of my life had shifted to the Tidewater area of Southern Virginia when I started college, and it never returned to Maryland.
Yet, in spite of living so close to North Carolina, in spite of numerous camping trips to the Outer Banks and attending an annual conference of zoologists in the mid-70s on the coast of North Carolina, in spite of living in an area with a high percentage of black residents, I never once had personal experience of the racial tensions, anger and violence that is shown in this movie. Now in my 60’s, I am surprised that so much of this went on so close to me without having much more than an intellectual impact, and yet that is how life seems to go unless you are smack in the middle of a conflict of this sort. You watch it on the news; you may sympathize with one side or the other; you may even sign a petition or take similar action like voting your beliefs. But seeing movies like this bring home how far most of us live our lives from such dramas and how little impact they have on us or us on them.
Movies are not like books, in that they cannot hope to really set the stage for a complete understanding of all the historical and cultural factors that contribute to a conflict. Books are far better at that sort of thing. Critics’ reviews point out that there are lacks in the story, and yet, for a movie, I felt it was incredibly powerful. It focused on one aspect of the racial problems rampant through the South: personal conviction, courage and integrity.
The movie is based on a true story, and although I’m sure details have been changed to create more drama and compress the action, it was so lovely to see pictures at the end and a few videos of how the two main characters continued to work together until they died to help change the way blacks and whites saw each other. This is the kind of story I like, one that takes a real situation and shows how ordinary people can do extraordinary things–make dramatic changes–just by taking a stand and following their beliefs.
Rotten tomatoes only gave it a 54% rating. The critics pointed out deficiencies, but seem to have missed that the story the movie chose to tell was well told. It’s hard to show how a person changes their mind about a lifelong prejudice. That is a very personal thing, and because it is an internal shift, it’s very hard to show on film. It’s much easier in a book. Yet, I feel that The Best of Enemies succeeded. It really got me thinking about how so much is going on around us, near and far, and in spite of mass media, it doesn’t really touch us. I’m not saying it ought to. Just the opposite.
I feel that we each have our challenges, opportunities to stand up for what we believe in, without adopting a crusade from another location or culture. It’s pretty easy to get worked up about the abuse of women in fundamentalist societies, about poverty in places that don’t even have clean water. But what about the problems right under your nose? Why not look at the challenge of things locally in your state or country?
For me, this means looking at issues like government intrusion and the taking away of our freedoms since 9/11. Or how corporations are taking over the government and using that power to limit the spread of truth and the ability to choose or discuss options. It’s easy to overlook what we accept as ‘normal,’ just as folks in 1971 in NC accepted segregation as normal. So much of what is normal around you is not ethical, not healthy, not compassionate and not fair.
I see movies like this not simply as a call to erase racial prejudice; I see it as a call to wake up and realize that what you accept as normal in many cases is wrong, dangerous, or unfair. What in your life do you not notice, because it seems normal, or you are lulled by media into thinking it’s normal? Laws that mandate vaccination? GMO foods? 5G? the proliferation and addiction to technology? the attacks on holistic medicine?
Diversity used to be celebrated more in America. Freedom of choice for all was the goal. These ideals have changed radically since I was a child. But it’s hard to be aware when you’re struggling to pay your bills and take care of your family. I think movies like The Best of Enemies give us an opportunity to stop and ask ourselves what in our lives that we accept as ‘normal’ is really unfair, wrong or dangerous, and what are we willing to do to change it? Don’t just think this is about racial problems. This is about how people sleepwalk through life, accepting prejudices and false truths and perpetuating hate and violence as a result. It isn’t just about race. It’s about the natural human tendency to accept the norm as ‘right.’ And how courage can create positive change, but it demands that we awaken to the truth and have the willingness to act.