Taraji P. Henson stars in a new historical drama film The Best of Enemies that centers on school desegregation in the southern United States during the early 1970s.

Oscar-nominee Henson plays civil rights activist Ann Atwater in the film, which is set in Durham, North Carolina in 1971. Atwater fights against local Ku Klux Klan leader C.P. Ellis, played by Oscar-winner Sam Rockwellto push for school desegregation. In an exclusive discussion with uInterview, Henson and Atwater’s granddaughter Ann-Nakia Green explained the movie’s story and revealed who the civil rights activist truly was.

“I’m her granddaughter and she was an amazing woman,” Green said of Atwater. “[She was] a woman for all people and she was strong and powerful in her own right.”

“She cared about change, not just change for herself and her family but for everybody.”

Henson called Atwater’s story “important” and “impactful.”

“I didn’t feel like her life or C.P. Ellis’s should be in vain because they made real change, and what their story leaves us with is hope,” said Henson. “It just confirms the statement ‘love wins,’ because it really does. She changed the whole family’s generation of hate.”

“[Ellis’s] grandchildren and Ann’s grandchildren know each other,” Henson added, motioning to Green.

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Henson explained that during the early 1970s, especially in the South, most schools were still segregated by race. She added that one particular all-black school burned down, and so the fight for integration only became more urgent after this. The actress also praised Bill Riddick, a black man who organized a charrette, or a meeting between local residents designed to come up with solutions to a problem.

“Ann [Atwater] was the president on one side and C.P. Ellis was the president of the Ku Klux Klan but he led the other side of town and they had to come together to air out their issues and come to an agreement,” she explained. “Through that process, Ann was able to touch Ellis’s heart and he became a loving person. He denounced the Ku Klux Klan and changed his life, and they became best friends until they died.”

Atwater died in June 2016 at age 80, while Ellis died in November 2005 at age 78. Both figures passed away in Durham, North Carolina. Henson revealed that the pair’s friendship became so strong that Ellis’s family asked Atwater to eulogize him at his funeral.

Henson admitted the scene in which she first sees Rockwell as Ellis dressed in a Klansman robe was among the most difficult and “haunting” for her to shoot.

“I think what the audience sees is my visceral reaction to it, which I can only imagine was Ann’s,” she said with a nervous laugh.

Henson praised Rockwell as a great scene partner who she found was interesting to “spar” with.

Green said that to her, the ultimate message of the film is that “our greatest enemy is within.”

“Until we check ourselves and our own biases, things that we were taught young and open up our ears to hear, that’s where the change can come,” said Green, adding her grandmother believed “everyone deserves a seat at the table,” regardless of socio-economic class, race, religion or other factors.

“Love wins, it’s that simple,” Henson added about the film’s moral. “If hate were to ever win, it would be the destruction of mankind. As hard as it is to love your enemy, we have to listen to each other and stop yelling.”

The Best of Enemies opens in theaters on Friday, and will surely resonate with many people in this era of strong division and racial tensions. The film is directed by Robin Bissell and also stars Wes Bentley, Bruce McGill and John Gallagher Jr. 

Full interview transcript below:

Q: Who was Ann Atwater, the subject of the film?

A: Green: I am her granddaughter, and she was an amazing woman, a woman for all people. She strong and powerful in her own right, and she cared about change, not just change for herself and her family but for everybody.

Q: Why did you want to play the role of Ann?

A: Henson: I felt like her story was very important, impactful. I didn’t feel like her life or C.P. Ellis’s should be in vain because, I mean, they made real change and what their story leaves us with is hope and it just confirms the statement, you know, “love wins,” because it really does. She changed the whole family’s generation of hate, like his grandchildren and Ann’s grandchildren they know each other, you know, so like I said: it just leaves us with hope.

Q: What event is the story based on?

A: Henson: You know, during the 1970s, schools were still very segregated and the black school burned down and so the black children had nowhere to go and so it was time to integrate and there were issues with both sides of the community. So Bill Riddick, who is an amazing good man, came down and he held a charette so both sides of the community could air out their issues. And Ann was the president of one side, and C.P. Ellis was the president of Ku Klux Klan, but he led the other side of town and they had to come together air out their issues and come to an agreement. And through that process, Ann was able to touch C.P. Ellis’s heart and he became a loving person, he denounced the Ku Klux Klan, changed his life, and they became best friends until they died. His family actually asked Anne to eulogize him at his funeral.

Q: What was the most challenging scene for you?

A: Henson: The most difficult thing for me was when I was face-to-face with the actual Ku Klux Klan uniform, and I seen pictures and you know documentaries and things like that, but I’ve never been that close and it was just haunting. think what the audience sees is an actual visceral — my visceral — reaction to it, which I can only imagine was Ann’s.

Q: What was Sam Rockwell like to work with?

A: Henson: How giving he is as a scene partner, you want somebody that you can share a scene with or someone that’s gonna make you raise your bar, you know, and he definitely does that. I really loved sparring with him.

Q: What’s the message of the film?

A: Green: I think basically our biggest enemy is within and until we check ourselves and our own biases, some things that we were taught young, I mean… Open up our ears to hear until we are able to do that, then you know that’s where the change can come. My grandmother believed in everybody having a seat at the table no matter your economic status, no matter how much money you had in the bank, no matter what religion you came from. She believed everybody had a seat at the table, so just everybody being able to come to the table, air their differences, come to a solution and move forward because the work is not done.

Henson: Love wins… It’s that simple. If hate were to ever win, it would be the destruction of mankind. You know, as hard as it is to love your enemy we have to listen to each other and stop yelling. Everybody’s fussing and yelling, trying to get their point across and no one’s really listening for understanding.

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