FilmBeat | Film Beat | Indy Week
Pin It

FilmBeat 

Diane Bloom's tale of overcoming odds

On the face of it, the story represents preposterous wishful thinking, a tale so unlikely and so sweet that it would challenge the narrative magic of Steven Spielberg. But, as Chapel Hill filmmaker Diane Bloom's short documentary An Unlikely Friendship recounts, it really did happen. That is, at the height of racial tensions in Durham in the early 1970s, a black woman activist did win over and befriend the leader of the local Ku Klux Klan organization. The tale of Ann Atwater and C.P. Ellis defies all reason, yet in Bloom's film, it seems logical and inevitable.

An Unlikely Friendship recounts an extraordinary 10-day period when Durham leaders convened a charrette, a mediation technique in which representative members of a community gather for intensive brainstorming through a difficult issue. In July of 1971, citizens of Durham--black and white alike--gathered to discuss access to city services and the conditions of the schools. More immediately, there was a court-ordered school desegregation plan to be reckoned with. Atwater was a prominent and aggressive activist (and impoverished welfare mother), so her inclusion in the 10-day charrette was no surprise. Ellis's participation, though more surprising, was a logical choice because he was also well-known to civic leaders as the Exalted Grand Cyclops of the Durham KKK, someone who would show up at city council meetings in his Klan robes and rail against race mixing. Most surprising: this unlikely pair would co-chair the charrette and become friends.

An Unlikely Friendship, which will be shown this Friday, Jan. 16 at Duke's Richard White Auditorium and broadcast on WUNC-TV Monday, Jan. 19, is also a jarring reminder, for viewers too young to remember the segregated South, that tolerant, peaceful communities such as Durham, Chapel Hill and Raleigh were once part and parcel of the Jim Crow regime. Furthermore, when Atwater and Ellis recount their impoverished and painful childhoods, we're reminded of Jim Crow's usefulness in dividing the poor against each other. Atwater is a native of Columbus County in western North Carolina, the youngest of nine children. Her parents were sharecroppers, growing tobacco and corn and keeping their own pigs and chickens. Atwater's childhood effectively ended at age 14 when, pregnant and married, she and her husband moved to Durham. However, as her life went on, her charisma and penchant for civic affairs was noted by local political organizers who offered her formal training in grassroots activism.

Ellis's upbringing was no more promising than Atwater's. His father worked in a local textile mill and often came home on payday falling-down drunk. Ellis was poor, even by the standards of that era's southern working class, and he was ashamed of it. As a young adult, Ellis went to work at a filling station that was frequented by white supremacists, and eventually he joined their ranks, finally becoming a member of a social organization that gave him a sense of belonging. "I'll never forget the night I was initiated," Ellis recounts in the film. The head Klansman told him, 'I now bestow upon you the title of Klansman. You'll never be alone anymore.' "I was in tears, I was so happy," he says.

In their own ways, Atwater and Ellis transcended their marginal origins and became community leaders. Still, their meeting at the 1971 charrette required the aggressive and risky diplomacy of charrette manager Bill Riddick, an African-American who persuaded the two long-distance antagonists to meet each other. Ellis's instinctive antipathy was matched by Atwater's. "I didn't like him no way--first, because he was white," Atwater says in the film. "I liked him even less because he was calling black people niggers." Still, Riddick persisted and Ellis and Atwater reluctantly agreed to work together in the charrette.

In An Unlikely Friendship, Atwater, Ellis and other participants describe two key emotional turning points that are perhaps best left for the film itself to divulge, but it doesn't reveal too much to say that Ellis publicly burned his KKK membership card at the conclusion of the charrette. Once a hater of blacks, Jews, Catholics and anything else that smacked of liberalism, Ellis later became a labor organizer throughout North Carolina. "I don't know why I hated the AFL-CIO, but somewhere along the way I got it into my head that they were bad just because they were liberals," Ellis says in the film. (Perhaps presidential candidate Howard Dean could take comfort in this film after the thorough roasting he got for suggesting, albeit clumsily, that Democrats reach out to working class, southern white men.)

The South that Atwater and Ellis were so much a product of is one that, thanks to their bravery and others, is a very different place. Accordingly, both have been recognized by local groups recently, in addition to having their relationship memorialized in Bloom's documentary. In November of 2003, Atwater was honored by the Durham NAACP for her lifetime of civil rights activism. Last Monday, Ellis--who is now in failing health and lives in an assisted environment--was presented with an award of appreciation by his longtime employer, Duke University. EndBlock

An Unlikely Friendship, which was completed in 2002, has been shown in dozens of festivals and other venues around the country, picking up awards in Durango, Colo., Orinda, Calif., and Burlington, Vt. It will be presented as part of Duke University's observance of Martin Luther King Day this Friday, Jan. 16 in the Richard White auditorium on Duke's East Campus, with members of C.P. Ellis' family scheduled to attend. The film starts at 7 p.m. and admission is free. On Monday night, Jan. 19, WUNC-TV will broadcast An Unlikely Friendship at 10:30 p.m.

Comments

Subscribe to this thread:

Add a comment

INDY Week publishes all kinds of comments, but we don't publish everything.

  • Comments that are not contributing to the conversation will be removed.
  • Comments that include ad hominem attacks will also be removed.
  • Please do not copy and paste the full text of a press release.

Permitted HTML:
  • To create paragraphs in your comment, type <p> at the start of a paragraph and </p> at the end of each paragraph.
  • To create bold text, type <b>bolded text</b> (please note the closing tag, </b>).
  • To create italicized text, type <i>italicized text</i> (please note the closing tag, </i>).
  • Proper web addresses will automatically become links.

Latest in Film Beat

  • Fall into Films

    Fall into Films

    Fab fall films beyond Star Wars and Justice League await.
    • Sep 13, 2017
  • Chapel Hill's Joy Goodwin discusses producing <i>Black Nativity</i>

    Chapel Hill's Joy Goodwin discusses producing Black Nativity

    "It was one of the few shows I've ever seen where I felt like people really loved the show. It wasn't just that they applauded, but there was a real groundswell of affection for that show."
    • Dec 4, 2013
  • Notes from the Raleigh set of <i>Bad Grandpa</i>

    Notes from the Raleigh set of Bad Grandpa

    I landed a job as a production assistant in the employ of Dickhouse Productions. Because of my penchant for skateboarding and punk rock, I was placed in the art department where I was told I would "fit in."
    • Oct 23, 2013
  • More »


Twitter Activity

Comments

The newest projector tech can fill that original sized screen, so it pretty much makes the argument moot. And the …

by Ian Hunter on Why you may get less than you bargained for with the new IMAX screens (Film Beat)

Julie Dash is a very inspiring brave intelligent woman. We need more women like her. This society needs more women …

by Carolina Sander on Julie Dash and the ongoing struggle of black women filmmakers (Film Beat)

Most Read

No recently-read stories.

Visit the archives…

Most Recent Comments

The newest projector tech can fill that original sized screen, so it pretty much makes the argument moot. And the …

by Ian Hunter on Why you may get less than you bargained for with the new IMAX screens (Film Beat)

Julie Dash is a very inspiring brave intelligent woman. We need more women like her. This society needs more women …

by Carolina Sander on Julie Dash and the ongoing struggle of black women filmmakers (Film Beat)

Kathy - is Home Movie Day still a thing? I noticed the mention of Home Movie Depot... it looks like …

by jimbrown82 on Time stands still at Home Movie Day (Film Beat)

So we went to the Marbles iMax, needless to say the iMax was awesome, but a strain on the eye …

by rojaindy on Why you may get less than you bargained for with the new IMAX screens (Film Beat)

awesome and informative article - just what I was looking for - I was trying to see if Marbles had …

by rojaindy on Why you may get less than you bargained for with the new IMAX screens (Film Beat)

© 2017 Indy Week • 320 E. Chapel Hill St., Suite 200, Durham, NC 27701 • phone 919-286-1972 • fax 919-286-4274
RSS Feeds | Powered by Foundation