Left of Black with Robin Bissell

Left of Black with Robin Bissell


Welcome to Left of Black. I’m your host, Mark Anthony Neal. We’re joined today by a special guest Robin Bissell who is the director of the
new film Best of Enemies based on the story of CP Ellis and Ann Atwater,
Durhamites who are on different sides of the political tracks if you will who
come together and were the subject of a best-selling book by Osha Gray Davidson
called Best of Enemies. How are you doing? I’m great. Nice to be here, Mark.
I have to ask you you mentioned earlier you grew up in Philadelphia. What
brought you to this story, the Best of Enemies? You know I used to get Time
magazine and they had a milestones page. I don’t know if you remember that. It
listed kind of anybody who had passed away or births or other notable things.
It was kind of like the People magazine page of Time. And it was 2005 and there
was that blurb about CP Ellis’ death. And it said two sentences. It said-
or one maybe. Clan leader turned union activist- and so you know at first you go
okay and then I just wanted to find out how that happened.
And I started digging and very shortly after that I found out why it
happened. And Ann Atwater and Bill Riddick. And so I read the book. I found
that there was a book. And then I saw a short documentary made by Diane Bloom in
2003 I guess and hearing them talk about each other that’s what really- that
succession of things really just grabbed me and I was like okay I have to make
this. You see kind of admiration between the two of them. You know
you had worked on you know on the production side- you know executive producer
of the Hunger Games, Free State of Jones. What made you decide to go behind the
camera you know for this? Yeah so I had moved to LA as a singer-songwriter and so I was like you
know and that didn’t work out. What kind of music? It was funk like we started
out as funk but then I started a band. It was a funk rock band. We had a record deal.
Kind of like the Black Crowes. Yeah a little bit. Yeah.
But we loved meters and all you know- we thought we were so great. But tried that
for about four years and then and then so then I went into- I kind of fell into
producing. I got this job with the writer/director named Gary Ross and I
started as his assistant kind of said that his producers as it happens
but always wanted to- I just felt really suited to directing because especially
having been a producer you gain a lot of confidence just being around the set and
knowing the process. It was that the thing was I didn’t know- I knew in order
to be able to direct I’d have to write something that was good enough where I
said no one else is gonna direct this but me. And so that was what I was really
scared of was writing. But it came out great so I was- talk about the adaptation process.
Yeah so you know thankfully with a true story like this and one so important I
not only had the book and I had the documentary just to get tone and feel
but I had I got to know Ann Atwater for three years you know. I first met her
in 2013 and she was you know I had only- what I had read and all that was
the rough house Annie part right. That I’m gonna get things done and she’s a
vehicle for change and she’s a catalyst and of course helped just
countless people. Then when I met her, she was all those things but she had this
huge heart. Massive compassion. And then I
heard her people starting to refer to her as Grandma Ann. And it just- it was
amazing. So to have her and her keeping me on the straight and
narrow when I was writing and Bill Riddick
still alive and telling me about you know keeping me kind of focused. To
have all those things put together really helped me in the writing. How much
contact did you have with Davidson in the process? You know, I talked to
to Osha early on in 2009. I got the rights as a producer. And then I kind of
let them lapse because I didn’t know what to do with the project because you
know as a producer you have to find a writer find a director. And the director
I was working with who was already working with on Free State of Jones or researching
that. So he wasn’t gonna do both. So then I went and produced The Hunger
Games and right after that I said okay I’m gonna go back. And that’s when I
called Osha and he was gracious enough to give me the rights. So he’s been a great
great help. There’s a you know there’s a- I think when you think about
a story like this so much of the film part of it is the timing of when you
get it done. If this is done ten years earlier fifteen years earlier, it
probably feels more like Driving Miss Daisy than it does now. How are you able
to find the balance and what do you think has kind of changed you know
culturally and also in Hollywood that you could tell this story the way it
needs to be told? That’s a really great question, especially the the last part of
that question. Because you know timing is everything just to get a movie made. It’s
so impossible. So for me this was a you know from 2013 to I shot it in 2017.
That’s pretty relatively small window for an independent film but our
timing worked out with Taraji. Once Taraji said yes yeah
the momentum started you know. As far as relevancy goes, you know I felt was
relevant in 2005. Sadly. And I didn’t plan for it to get this much more
relevant right. And I wish it wasn’t right. We all wish it was
just a great story about two enemies who came together, but that’s not what it is in
today’s context. Now what I will say is making the film as the hate rhetoric and
white nationalism and violence has increased over the last three four years
I became more cognizant of the fact that I needed to be careful. I needed to
make sure I was telling the right story. And I ended up knowing that I did
because a lot of people waited and waited and Bill waited and
Taraji and you know it just it felt right. But I definitely had more of a- I
definitely had more of an eye toward making sure tone was right and all those
things. Because it’s now- it’s such a fragile time. You know it’s interesting
because there’s a way in which to tell the story you do want to acknowledge how
Ellis gets humanized, but you don’t want to humanize Ellis too much to the
point that you actually fictionalize who he was before that point in
time. That’s right. And again when you
tell a story you decide how far to go back in time right. To me he’s the
president of a violent hate group, the KKK. That’s you know so I start
there. And again I think that for me
early on it was. “Where does this hate come from?” You know I didn’t grow
up a poor white southerner. I certainly won’t presume to know what it’s like to
be black in America. So I just wanted to find out where the hatred came from and
how and why and decided to go through and try to break through him. And so what
I needed to do is dimensionalize him at least. I need to make him a
three-dimensional person because whether you’re a good person or you’re a bad
person or you’re an agent of evil or everybody’s still a three-dimensional
person. So for me that’s all I wanted. I just wanted to show yes he has a family,
yes he has a job, those things. And that’s what Ann talked about to me. You
know she just at least once they started sitting down- and they hated each other
for so long. She saw him as a human being and
then she could find her way in. They both grew up poor. So they could
find that common ground somewhere. Absolutely it’s just that it’s
interesting that the African-American groups that were poor
and grew up that way weren’t you know blaming the wrong people you know. The
the poor white groups who were joining clans and other hate groups were
blaming the wrong people. Instead of the white power structure the rich you know
they should have been on the same side you know. I mean yeah. Talk about you
know being able to attract two Academy Award nominee actors to this
project. Fortuitous I guess you know Rockwell you know just out of the
nomination for Vice playing W. Taraji you know particularly as Cookie
Lyons right is this larger-than-life character right you know. Outside of her
career. And even her nomination for Benjamin Bottoms. Talk
about how it was to bring them to the project of what it was like working with
them on the project. Yeah well so you know again timing is everything and so my
good friend Dani Strong who’s a producer on this film had just created Empire. And
they were shooting the pilot and I didn’t know anything about the show. And
I knew Taraji was in it and he said “How about I give this to Taraji?” I was like, “You
kidding?” And so it was that quick. And then Empire became a huge hit right. And
so we really started getting momentum And Taraji’s schedule is such that she
only has a few months in between Empire each year. So we were trying to get done
that first year. Couldn’t. So we had to wait a whole year. And in that time, Sam
came to the project. And again we had shot- I mean I’ve always loved
Sam. He’s at the top of my list. I knew he’d create a real character. I just wanted
real. And Taraji of course loved Sam. She knows Sam’s girlfriend Leslie Bibb well.
And so just as a first-time director just to have two artists of this
caliber I mean it just gives you the confidence. You know you can’t screw
up too much, you know what I mean. And then after we shot, Sam goes and wins an
Oscar for three billboards. And then he gets nominated. So this timing has been
incredible for just the film and the artists in the film. And you
know normally I would- I was you know teetering on being intimidated by their
talent you know and being a first-time director before we started
shooting. But right away it became very collaborative. And they’re so giving as
actors. They made me feel completely comfortable so… How familiar were they
with the story. The Best of Enemies? Taraji- neither of them had heard the story.
But as soon as Taraji started doing research and she has a lot of
ties in the south and went to North Carolina A&T I think in Greensboro.
She talked to her mother about her. Her mother said, “Oh I know who Ann Atwater is” like right away. Everybody down here knows who she is. So then Taraji really
got into doing research. But neither of them had heard it. Of course now you know I mean
they’re all over it. You were here last night you know for opening here in Durham.
What was it like to present the film to the Durham community and particularly the Durham
black community and what was their response to the film? The response was
overwhelming. I was just so elated that people loved it. And I knew we had a
good movie but it took so long to do. And people were very patient especially Ann.
Well Ann passed away, but her family, Bill Riddick, and Howard Clement, who’s a
big kind of icon in this community who passed away. I got to meet him once
before he died. And CP’s family. So just having the families
finally see it after all this time after I’d first met them all in 2013 was
great for me. And to share with the community and the black community I just
wanted to I just hoped that I had told it in a way that gave us hope
and that people could be proud of Durham for. And walking in it was
funny. It wasn’t funny actually. When I first pulled up last night Marilyn
Turner got out of her car. Anne’s daughter, Marilyn who had
flown up from St. Louis. And as we were walking up she said. “It’s interesting
you’re having this at the Carolina Theater.” And I said, “Well
it wasn’t my decision but Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove”
and I said great and she said, “Because when I was a girl they wouldn’t let me in here
to see the movie”. And I got chills when she said that. And I said, “Well look
at us now you know. We’re here to tell your mom’s story.” What do you hope the
film does- I know the book for instance here at Duke it’s been a first year
reading summer book you know. I could imagine there are lots of K-12 schools
that will find some value in the film at this point in time. But what
kind of work do you actually think it holds? You know what kind of it does you
know for the way that we think about racism at this point in time? I mean it’s hard to say- you
know when I look Ann and I say, “Oh well she didn’t have to go- she’d have to
work on this guy. She didn’t have to. It’s not her job to make sure he
starts seeing the world the right way.” But she did and she did it for kids.
She did it for the schools. She did it for the community. I understand why she did it. And
then they became friends. So I’m not really- I don’t- I’m not necessarily a
proponent of going out and finding neo-nazis and sitting down with them, you know I
mean. Because you know it’s not everyone’s job
to do that. However there’s a lot of people with hatred in their heart that
is misguided. It’s been taught. Absolutely. And so at least it may
give us hope that some hearts can be changed somewhere along the line. They have to
do their part clearly. But I think that if this can happen in the south in 1971
between these two specific people who couldn’t have been more diametrically
opposed then maybe you know we all get so- we’re so anxiety ridden
about “It’s so bad out there. How are we ever going to change it?” And you know
they’re big mountains but maybe you start taking the first steps. This obviously was a labor of love for you particularly you know doing the
adaptation and directing it yourself. What’s on the docket next for you? Well
you know so I’ve been waiting for this to come out. It always helps when you
have a movie actually in the theaters. So I’ve been writing an original which is
more of a thriller kind of interesting thriller that I’ve been wanting to do
for a while and I’m in the middle of that right now. And I have a couple other
projects. There’s a book. A World War II book that I’m planning like a limited
series. Like an eight part series maybe on Netflix or something about a woman
named Andre DeYoung who was a young Belgian woman in World War II who
established something called- she was like 23. She established something called
the Comet line which would take British RAF soldiers who had been left
behind after Dunkirk or were POWs that are hidden in Belgium. She’d take
them all the way through occupied France into Spain into the British Consulate
and they saved like 800 people. And she had eventually got caught and put in Ravens
Boat concentration camp in Germany. The Wall Woman’s concentration camp. And lived
through the war and eventually got the Medal of Freedom. I mean an amazing woman
you know. And instead of like taking that and she was only 28 at the time when she
got the Medal of Freedom and the George- and instead of taking that you
know celebrity and dining out on it the rest of her life she just decided to go
into the Congo and help lepers. I mean this is- that’s a woman
you know. So it’s cool. And I haven’t sold it yet but we own a book with a- I have
another producer in Britain who has the book. So I’m hoping to do something with
that. We’ve enjoyed today by Robin Bissell who is the director and also the
screenwriter adapted screenwriter of the new film Best of Enemies based on the relationship
between Ann Atwater and CP Ellis. Thank you for joining us.

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