A movie, some local history, a career and some advice; or, my trip to an alumni function

October 2, 2019

By Matthew E. Milliken
Oct. 2, 2019

I have not been particularly active in the local Stanford Alumni chapter, but last week there was an event that I absolutely had to attend. The group showed The Best of Enemies, a movie released in April that’s based on a remarkable incident in the battle to integrate Durham schools.

The movie, based on the 2007 book of the same name by journalist Osha Gray Davidson, centers on a comprehensive series of community discussions known as a charrette. The meetings were organized because a fire at an elementary school serving black students essentially forced the public’s hand.

I won’t say much more about what happened, either in actual history or in the movie, other than to note that it’s a truly amazing story. I’d learned about this 1970s episode during a past life as a local education reporter — although I’d forgotten some of the more important points, which heightened the climax for me.

The film’s first-time writer/director is Robin Bissell, who’s produced seven features, most notably The Hunger Games, Seabiscuit and Pleasantville. The leads are Taraji P. Henson (Hidden Figures) as community activist Ann Atwater, Sam Rockwell (Moon) as mechanic and Klan leader C.P. Ellis and Babou Ceesay as Bill Riddick, the charrette leader. They’re supported by a fine cast, including Bruce McGill as Carvie Oldham, a city councilman; John Gallagher Jr. and Caitlin Mehner as key members of the charrette’s guiding committee; and especially Anne Heche as Mary Ellis, C.P.’s perceptive spouse.

The movie includes another activist, Howard Clement; during the screening, his name tugged at my mind for reasons I couldn’t quite pin down. Some footage of the actual persons portrayed in the narrative accompanies the credits; when Clement popped up, speaking in his distinctive baritone, I realized that he was a longtime city council member whom I’d covered a few times during my above-mentioned newspaper stint.

The most interesting part of the evening, however, was probably the discussion that took place after the feature. The organizers had invited the real-life Riddick to chat with the audience.

The consultant and educator — Riddick has worked in student health at UNC Chapel Hill for much of the past two decades — has a ready smile. He told us that he came to specialize in convening charrettes due to a misunderstanding.

Riddick was participating in a public discussion process at Shaw University, the historically black Raleigh institution where he worked at the time, when black participants asked white attendees to leave — a development that didn’t seem conducive to reaching community consensus. The convener, who mistakenly thought that Riddick had encouraged this schism, threw up his hands and dumped the whole mess in Riddick’s lap.

Riddick managed to repair the rift and ultimately launched a consultancy running charrettes; the Durham affair was among that venture’s early commissions. Nowadays, Riddick told us, these events are much more compact than the one depicted in the movie, which ran for the better part of two weeks.

Incidentally (or not), Riddick told us that except for the very final scene with his character and the other two leads, the movie hewed closely to true life.

I jokingly asked Riddick if he could do anything to break the deadlock in Congress. He demurred, saying that he isn’t much of a politics person. But the educator, who has a generally sunny outlook, said that unless Americans of different kinds and beliefs start having meaningful conversations with one another, our nation is bound to fall apart. The modern-day tendency to consume information and opinions coming solely from those who already share our viewpoint is corrosive to civic coexistence, Riddick opined.

Riddick also offered a bit of inspirational guidance, urging his listeners to look in “your favorite mirror” the next morning and ask ourselves, What can I do today to make my world a better place?

I don’t suppose this is breathtakingly original advice, but that makes it no less valuable. And if applied often and earnestly enough, it might lead to something truly significant. It’s important to have some optimism and a can-do attitude, even when circumstances seem dire.

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