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‘The Best of Enemies,’ a new movie about Durham, wasn’t filmed in Durham

A new film that celebrates a pivotal event in Durham’s history has an important asterisk: It wasn’t filmed in Durham.

Set to hit theaters nationwide April 5 after a special showing at the Carolina Theater March 19, The Best of Enemies chronicles the unlikely encounters between civil rights activist Ann Atwater (Taraji P. Henson) and then-KKK leader C.P. Ellis (Sam Rockwell) as they co-chair the committee to desegregate Durham schools in 1971 following a court order.

But while the film tells an important story about Durham, the vast majority of its filming did not take place here. Instead, audiences will see small-town Georgia – the Bartow County Courthouse, Ross’ Diner in Cartersville and the Macon-Bibb Government Center – as stand-ins for the Durham of the early 1970s.

Astute Films, which co-produced The Best of Enemies, found everything it needed in the Atlanta area.

Astute Films’ Harrison Powell told the Atlanta Film Chat podcast that Atlanta’s setup as a “series of small neighborhoods” helps films of all themes and settings make the city work for them. In the case of The Best of Enemies, the small towns of Macon and Cartersville offered both retro-looking architecture (or the potential, with a paint job) and an advantageous location close to the city.

So it was easy to make Durham from scratch.

Durham Mayor Steve Schewel told The 9th Street Journal that the shooting location of the film is less important than the story it will tell.

“I knew Ann Atwater and Claybourn Ellis and had personal relationships which each of them. And I’m very excited that they’re going to be celebrated,” he said.

Moreover, the film’s themes of cross-cultural, cross-racial, and cross-ideological friendship and collaboration tie into Durham’s plans for its sesquicentennial celebration.

“I think it would’ve been nice if it was shot here. [But] this is going to tell a story that the world ought to know. For that I’m very excited,” Schewel said. “I’m excited that it’s Durham’s 150th birthday and it’s really appropriate that the film will be a part of that celebration.”

Hollywood films are all about illusion, of course, and filmmakers go where the tax breaks are.

“It’s not as unusual for a project that may be set in one place to film in another,” said Guy Gaster, director of FilmNC, the state’s film commission. “North Carolina certainly had their fair share of those projects as well, including Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri which actually filmed in our state and not in Missouri.”

Indeed, North Carolina has brought in major pictures over the years including The Hunger Games, Iron Man 3 and Dirty Dancing. According to a 2014 study, the film industry spent more than $1 billion here between 2007 and 2012, including $58.3 million in tax revenue for the state after tax credits.

But the state’s popularity as a film location has diminished since 2014, when the General Assembly downsized North Carolina’s lucrative tax incentives to a more limited grant program.

Much of the filming business North Carolina may have attracted is now lost to Georgia. In 2008, the Georgia Entertainment Industry Investment Act launched Atlanta into prominence as an entertainment production and industry hub. Today, its film industry ranks just behind Los Angeles and New York. With generous tax credits and write-offs after release, the incentive program is cost-effective for productions while mitigating risk for investors.

Georgia’s incentive policy has a momentous impact on films’ decision to come to the state.

“From what we see, it’s because of those film tax incentives. That’s the biggest factor,” said Emily Murray, a spokeswoman for the Georgia Department of Economic Development.

The film industry’s economic impact in Georgia has soared from $241.5 million in 2007 to $9.52 billion in 2017.

“Film productions bring in business as far as catering, local jobs for stylists, makeup artists, construction workers, electrical workers,” said Murray. “And then while they’re there, they’re sometimes buying hotel rooms, they’re paying the location fees, they’re working with the city to close roads and paying those fees, they’re working with local businesses.”

Gaster of the North Carolina film commission noted that these kinds of ripple effects are among Durham’s losses at not seeing The Best of Enemies filmed in town. But, he said, “Durham will still benefit because the project has been made to look like it is Durham. There’s still the Durham story.”

(Photo at top: An image from the film’s trailer depicts Durham in 1971.)  

Do women and people of color get a fair share of government contracts?

Durham is a diverse city where black residents account for 37 percent of the population and people of Hispanic origin represent 13 percent. But officials are concerned the groups do not get a similar share of city contracts.

“I continue to be floored by how many of the businesses we’re working with have zero people of color,” Councilmember DeDreana Freeman said at a City Council meeting last week. “It’s really disturbing.”

The Council signed off on five deals with contractors that will cost almost $2.2 million. Only two of those deals met goals for contracting with minority and women-owned businesses. For the other three projects, goals for minority and women-owned business participation were not set.

City officials say they’ve been aware of the challenge for years. In 2013, the city commissioned a study to analyze the disparity in government contracting practices.

The study found that over a five-year period, Durham spent $206.1 million, but only $5.5 million — or less than 3 percent — was awarded to minority and women-owned firms.

The city established goals for minority and women business participation using the findings of the study. Construction contractors, for instance, should include minority-owned businesses in 11 percent and women-owned businesses in 7 percent of a project.

The Equal Business Opportunity Program requires contractors to “make good faith efforts” to meet these targets. However, some contracts are not assigned goals because there are no minority or women-owned firms available.

“If [contractors] can’t meet the goals … they have to say why,” Mayor Steve Schewel said. “And the reason usually is there are no women or minority-owned businesses that have the ability to do that certain skill.”

At the meeting, Schewel said that the city can focus on developing minority and women businesses so that they become eligible to win government contracts.

“That is a bigger societal problem we’ve got to solve in our education system,” Schewel said. “We also need to be thinking as a city about how we’re going to help some of our folks who do have technical skills but don’t have business experience.”

Earlier in the meeting, Councilmember Mark-Anthony Middleton suggested postponing the scheduled vote to appoint twelve people to the newly established Racial Equity Task Force. His reasoning was that only one of the twelve appointees is an African-American man.

“For a racial equity task force in a southern American city where nine African-American males applied — for it to be just one African-American male on the task force, I think optically, is a shortcoming on our part.”

Freeman and Councilmember Vernetta Alston echoed the concerns.

Now, the appointments will be reconsidered at the Council’s Sept. 20 work session.

Middleton ended his remarks by reminding his fellow councilmembers that until the task force is functional, people of color in Durham still have a voice.

“There is a working group in our city that should be mindful of racial equity issues: us.”