Taraji P. Henson Brings Ann Atwater's Activism to Life in The Best of Enemies

Sam Rockwell, Babou Ceesay and Taraji P. Henson in a scene from The Best of Enemies
Sam Rockwell, Babou Ceesay and Taraji P. Henson in a scene from The Best of Enemies
Photo: Annette Brown (STX Films)

It is a biblical fact that Taraji P. Henson has never been the one, and so it is fitting for her to play activist and disruptor Ann Atwater in the new film The Best of Enemies.

Atwater was a civil rights activist who wasn’t here for anyone’s shit, making it her mission to make sure her community’s needs were met. She spearheaded many programs, such as Operation Breakthrough, a program designed to help people escape poverty.

The Best of Enemies documents a truly unique situation and unlikely relationship that formed between a local Ku Klux Klan leader, C.P. Ellis, and Atwater. The pair were tasked to participate in a 1971 summit that dealt with the desegregation of schools in Durham, N.C.

In the film, I couldn’t help but notice Atwater showed a type of love I’ve learned about at First Corinthians Baptist Church, which is to love people beyond the limits of your prejudice. When asked about this love, Henson said, “When you call yourself a Christian, that means you understand that God’s love is all-inclusive, nonjudgmental and unconditional.” She continued by saying, “Love is the search for understanding, and if you truly love with God’s love, then you’re trying to understand a person.”


I know what you’re thinking: Loving a KKK member? In this economy? In this political climate? Nah. But that’s the thing Henson pointed out to me about how Atwater was able to meet C.P. at his level. She stated Atwater couldn’t fight him with hate because they kept clashing. They didn’t make any progress until she understood and accepted him as a human and approached him from a language of love.

Henson continued on the relationship between Ellis and Atwater, saying, “You have to learn how to listen to your worst enemy. You have to understand your enemy if you’re trying to bring forth change. People just want to be heard and respected.”

When Henson chose to do this film, Wordpress Warriors far and wide hopped on Al Gore’s internet to shame her for choosing to tell this true-life story. She stated that she had to “hop on Twitter” and remind the masses that they are judging something they haven’t even seen yet, based on what somebody said about a whole other film.

“Just because you see a black woman and a white man, you want to lump it up with some other movie,” Henson said.


Her answer made me wonder how she goes about choosing her roles and what her thought processes are for her projects. So obviously, I asked her; and she did not disappoint.

Henson said she chooses her roles based on fear. “If they don’t scare me, then I don’t pick them. If I’m scared, then that means I have to overcome something. And that will bring forth change because there’s an obstacle for me to get over.”


“If it doesn’t move me or excite me then I won’t do the character or the audience a disservice,” she added.

Henson then took The Root to church, telling us that acting will teach you to love unconditionally. She said, “When I take on a role I can’t judge the character. If I’m judging them, then I can’t live the character’s truth.”


When I saw the film I noticed they gave Henson the “Tyler Perry Madea Special.” Henson is smaller in stature than Atwater, so the film’s costume designer had to work their magic and bring that character to life. That’s when Henson said she came into character. “It all starts in wardrobe for me. That’s when I can come alive and truly be the character,” she stated.

Henson says she loves portraying Southern women because she’s very familiar with them. Her mother sent her to the South during the summer months, so she got a true appreciation for them. Her “Madea Special” came equipped with large breasts; Taraji quipped that women who are blessed in that area tend to hide all manner of things in that region. Give me anatomy, but make it functional?


If The Best of Enemies teaches you anything, it’s that change can only come when you approach things with the language of love. We as a people are filled with love. We have so many reasons to go off and burn shit down, but yet we don’t. Despite all the tumultuous situations we’ve been through, black people have always come out with love.

Love is always the answer, because as Henson said: “If hate ever wins, then it will be the end of humanity as we know it, because hate’s objective is to destroy.”


Can I get an Amen?!

Chief Beyoncé Content Officer @ TheRoot. I aspire to be as steadfast & unmovable as Solange's wig. Former President of Hogwart's Black Student Union.

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Can we get some films where black people didn’t totally love the KKK? ‘Cause this shit is -beyond- old as fuck and tired.