Burden tells the story of how one man made the decision to walk away from the KKK with the help of a local religious leader and social activist.
Let’s paint a quick picture. The film takes place in Laurens, S.C. in 1996 where racism was very much alive and well. Honestly, it’s brutal to watch at times as there are more than enough moments of discomfort. There are racial slurs throughout the film so I’m giving you a content warning right now about the film.
Mike Burden (Garrett Hedlund) spent much of his life under the tutelage of local KKK leader Tom Griffin (Tom Wilkinson). When we first meet them, they’re breaking down the Echo in preparation of re-opening the theater. There’s just one tiny but very important detail: they’re re-opening it as the Redneck Shop and KKK Museum. The moment that Rev. David Kennedy (Forest Whitaker) sets his eyes on the awful sight, he immediately gets to work with civil protests. While all of this is going on, Mike befriends single mother Judy Harbeson (Andrea Riseborough) and starts up a relationship. Before you know it, he moves in with Judy and her son, Franklin (Taylor Gregory).
There’s an obvious tension but Kennedy remains idealistic. Everything changes when Judy makes Mike choose between her or the KKK. The moment he chooses her is when you see just how much power the Tom holds locally. They get kicked out of their house and she ends up losing her job. I know it’s a cliche but this is where you can’t believe what happens next. Much to the surprise of wife Janice (Crystal Fox) and son Kelvin (Dexter Darden), Rev. Kennedy offers them his son’s room in the basement. Granted, you could hear a pin drop the moment that he brings them home. Some surprising moments follow and I’ll let you watch how they play out themselves.
Rev. Kennedy isn’t the only person who is able to see some potential in Mike. Mike’s childhood friend, Clarence (Usher Raymond), doesn’t see color. Even though he might not see eye to eye on everything with Rev. Kennedy, he’s someone who is able to see decency in the town’s future. We see some of this hope in the friendship between Franklin and Clarence’s son, Duane (Devin Bright).
This isn’t the first movie where a member of the KKK renounces their membership. It’s a solid bet that it probably won’t be the last film either. What we can see through watching the film is that it’s entirely possible to be redeemed. It won’t be an easy road and it certainly means asking forgiveness from those you’ve wronged. All one can really do is just hope for the best.
Garrett Hedlund disappears into the role of a racist who later manages to redeem himself. Whitaker turns in a solid performance as Kennedy to a point in which you almost forget you’re watching an Oscar winner practicing his craft. Meanwhile, Wilkinson portrays Griffin in a way that almost humanizes him. Oh, Griffin is very much a racist but it just goes to say that you just never know what a racist will look like.
Even in the short amount of time it took to film Burden, the production values really bring out the time period. The production and costume designs are exquisite in their own right. Moreover, the cinematography and decision against using bright colors really drive this home. And yet, I still can’t believe that they’re able to recreate 1996 just like that.
The film’s cinematic origins dates back to almost 25 years ago. Writer-director Andrew Heckler put a lot of work into telling their story. One that also took a lot of persistence, too. This is a film that could very well have been made as a documentary. In fact, the end of the film shows footage of Rev. Kennedy and Mike Burden in real life. When all is said and done, Burden shows us that there is hope for one to unlearn their racist ways.
DIRECTOR/SCREENWRITER: Andrew Heckler
CAST: Garrett Hedlund, Forest Whitaker, Andrea Riseborough, Tess Harper, Crystal Fox, Usher Raymond, and Tom Wilkinson