Earlier this Spring, situated in a midtown hotel suite in the heart of New York City, quite different from the scene of the true story behind The Best of Enemies film we’d just watched, was a man – Bill Riddick (pictured above on the left) – who survived racism and was brave enough to place himself in the heart of it by hosting community summits to guide unifying conversations between opposing sides. He shared with us his point of view of that moment in history having lived and worked in the Civil Rights era as the release of the film neared, and Taraji P. Henson, who was inspired to take on the role of a civil rights activist after Donald Trump was elected president, joined him in an adjacent room to share another perspective of the story.
In 1971, Bill Riddick was asked to host what he called a “charrette” in Durham, North Carolina where two community leaders were fighting for conflicting rights for kids in schools. On one end, civil rights activist Ann Atwater (played by Taraji P. Henson) thought it’d be the perfect time to integrate schools, and on the other end, Ku Klux Klan leader C.P. Ellis preferred the Black kids continue to learn in their own environment. In the movie, the unfitting conditions of the Black school were the result of a fire that forced admins to split up school days since half of the building was inoperable, which then caused the Black kids’ school days to extend into the hot summer.
The intense charrette ended up working in all kids favor with desegregation (in the movie and in real life) and even bridged a gap between Ann Atwater (1935-2016) and C.P. Ellis (1927-2005) who went on to become close friends up until their deaths. It turns out that outside of race, they had a lot in common after all. By the end of the almost two-week summit, C.P. tore up his Klans card and renounced his membership.
That, alone, brought about so many questions, but we started with this one…
ALIYA FAUST: MR. RIDDICK, EVERYBODY’S CURIOUS TO KNOW WHAT IT WAS LIKE ORGANIZING THE CHARRETTE IN SUCH A HOSTILE ERA. WERE YOU NERVOUS? AFRAID?
Bill Riddick: You’re always nervous when you go into a town and you try to do something ’cause the town don’t know you. So you always a little bit uptight but if you clearly set your goals and understand what the charrette is supposed to do, and stay with that, then it eliminates a lot of the confusion you would have.
YOU HAD TO BE REALLY BRAVE TO ORGANIZE SUCH A THING. HOW’D YOU PULL IT OFF?
Bill Riddick: We put a committee of 10-12 people together. My biggest problem was to get C.P. to come to those meetings. He did show up though. Out of that committee comes the two chair persons and it was clear from the beginning that [C.P. and Ann] were the two vocal people, it was clear that they didn’t like each other, it was clear that both kind of had a chip on their shoulder as it related to each other. So, it was a perfect setting for the charrette but it wasn’t perfect for how I felt about it. I thought both of them were kind of out of thy lane and that bothered me for a while but I discovered that that was my own problem. After the first day, I left my biases at home and became a better person to be able to help put this whole charrette together.
WHY’D YOU FIRST FEEL THEY WEREN’T THE RIGHT PEOPLE?
Bill Riddick: C.P. was a klansman. Having been born in the 30s, I’ve seen a lot of crosses burned in the rural section of Carolina. I thought Ann talked a lot before she thought about what she was saying and so some of the words would come out to be really hostile and that’s not a way you lead a group of people. But she did have leadership qualities for the people of Durham. She was the spokesperson. And on the other side, you got a person I had to wrestle to find respect for. I kind of understood Ann’s place because I understand being in her shoes. But it was hard to understand this white supremacist who, in one of his statements before the charrette started, said that Black people should not be allowed downtown on the weekend and only if they were working. He really said that. I don’t think I slept much that night.
WAS THERE ANYTHING YOU DID TO HELP PREPARE TARAJI P. HENSON AND SAM ROCKWELL?
Bill Riddick: No, not really. I went to part of the shooting but they had studied. I met Sam before he came to Durham and I had an opportunity to speak to him. He was trying to learn that southern way. He did it very well. Taraji, she’s a special person. She’s special at what she does and she learned the character in a short period of time.
Taraji P. Henson: I had to do a lot of listening to [Ann]. I had to get her rhythm. When I went to try on the prosthetic suit, they had the boobs wrong. They were perky and small and I was like ‘the purpose of this suit is so I can be different. I feel to light in this.’ I said, ‘call Tyler Perry and ask him how did they make Madea’s boobs because I want them to be like that!’ [LAUGHS]. They couldn’t believe that I was willing to go there and I had to. This wasn’t a fictional character. I read where she ate biscuits and gravy for dinner. That’s a heavy starch diet. That’s weight. You gotta make me look the part. So, they were excited about that.
TARAJI, WE’VE SEEN YOU BE AN ADVOCATE FOR JUSTICE ON AND OFF THE SCREEN. WHAT WAS IT ABOUT THIS STORY THAT MADE YOU SAY YES TO THE ROLE?
Taraji P. Henson: When I read the story, it sounded fictional. C.P. tore up his Klans membership, denounced the KKK and became a civil rights activist. That happened. And when found out that was a story, I was like, ‘no way.’ And then I found out Ann wanted me to play her. I was like, ‘what!?’ But I felt compelled because of what was happening. It seems like history is repeating itself right now. That’s why I thought that this was so important. It reminds us that these horrible things happen. It reminds us that we don’t need to go back down the same road and repeat ourselves. Some stuff I do for fun, and I also try to do projects that are humanity forward and remind us that we should do better.
DO YOU THINK A CHARRETTE WOULD BE BENEFICIAL IN TODAY’S AGE?
Taraji P. Henson: I think we need it because what it allows you to do is listen and understand. Especially if you have a moderator, because what you’re going to get initially is everybody screaming and yelling, trying to get their point across because each side is just as passionate about their beliefs. So now we need a middle person to kind of balance the room. The first time you’re going to start yelling, and the next time, if you’re really serous about change, you’re going to start listening to understand, not listening to respond or react. Ann Atwater was not able to reach C.P. fighting his fight. It wasn’t until she dropped back and started excepting him as a human. She started seeing him as a broken human just like she was and she started respecting him as a human. She started using her Bible and she started loving him unconditionally like God. And God’s love is all-inclusive. It’s unconditional. Sometimes you have to rise above someone saying the most hateful things to you. Somebody’s gotta do it if we want change.
I’M GLAD YOU MENTIONED THAT. ONE OF THE BIGGEST MOMENTS THAT SPOKE TO ANN’S CHARACTER WAS WHEN SHE PAID ROOM AND BOARD FOR C.P.’S DISABLED SON. IT’S A LESSON IN LOVE. HAVE YOU HAD ANY REAL LIFE MOMENTS LIKE THAT?
Taraji P. Henson: Oh yeah, you gotta do that a lot or you’ll spend your whole life being angry and bitter and resentful. People are complicated. They’re complex and my realization is that we’re all broken. If you are living and you have breath in your body, you’re broken about something. You have a pain of something. I try to look at people as innocent children. I don’t think most humans wake up every day to cause real havoc; it’s coming from some sort of pain. So, if we look at each other as broken, our approach can be a little different. You never know what people are carrying, so I try to be nice to all people. It doesn’t cost anything to be nice.
ANOTHER STANDOUT MOMENT THROUGH IT ALL WAS WHEN YOU GUYS WERE SITTING IN THE SCHOOL AT A TABLE WHERE A MAN IN THE CHARRETTE GROUP TALKED ABOUT THE COMMON GOAL OF WANTING WHAT’S BEST FOR THEIR CHILDREN, BUT HOW THE DIFFERENCE IN RAISING BLACK CHILDREN WAS THAT THEIR PARENTS COULDN’T PROTECT THEM FROM RACISM AND WHITE PRIVILEGE. I GOT CHILLS.
Taraji P. Henson: That’s a moment every Black parent takes to our grave. I did an interview yesterday and I talked about how we’re walking around depressed. Constantly. Anxiety. At an all-time high. What’s going on with the police brutality, the murders, and the getting off – Black mothers, grandmothers, we carry that to our graves. Every night we worry about our kids. That’s something that’s in our DNA.
SO WHAT DO YOU DO ABOUT THINGS THAT ARE OUT OF YOUR CONTROL?
Taraji P. Henson: See, that’s why I launched my foundation [The Boris Lawerence Henson Foundation] to eradicate the stigma around mental health in the Black community because it’s taboo for us. We’re traumatized and we’ve been traumatized for generations. This trauma has been passed down and what you see is a group of people who have learned how to cope with their trauma. That’s horrible. Why? Why don’t we talk to people? We can tell you about our thyroid, cancer and the lump they found, but we don’t talk about mental health care. That’s a problem. I felt compelled to launch my foundation because I feel like people have a misconception of artists. You even see a lot of artists taking their lives. I thought it was important to put a face to it to say, ‘look, hey, even though you think that my life is all together because of course I’m living out my dream doing what I love to do and yes I get money, but money doesn’t fix anything. It amplifies your problems.’ Somebody has to put a face to [mental health]. Somebody has to say it’s ok. I launched the foundation out of necessity for myself and my son. We experienced some trauma in our lives and it was time to get help. Especially my son. He needed to sit across from someone he could trust and when it came time to look, they weren’t there. I mean, they’re there, but they’re not easy to find. So my executive director who’s also my best friend since the 7th grade, she has suffered from anxiety all her life and we had an issue trying to find culturally competent therapists. She did the numbers and the numbers were so low. That’s because we don’t talk about it in our communities and our kids don’t even aspire to be therapists or psychologists. They don’t even know that’s something they can go in to. So, our approach is to implement professional therapists in schools to look at these children and really give them an assessment.
WHAT’S A LESSON YOU LEARNED THROUGH FILMING THAT YOU WANT PEOPLE TO TAKE AWAY FROM WATCHING THE MOVIE?
Taraji P. Henson: I think what I really want people to take away from the movie is that when someone matches you with hate, just know it’s coming from a place of pain. It’s coming from a very broken place and it has nothing to do with you, so don’t be offended. Try to understand it. If you’re really about change and are humanity-forward, you can’t fight that fight with hate. You have to try a different approach.
Bill Riddick: We walk around with a lot of biases we don’t even recognize we have. I would hope that the movie would force everyone, even myself, to have a relook at ourselves and look at what we bring to the table that’s just not fitting for people around us and people of this country.
See the trailer for the movie, due in theaters on April 5, below!