In the last few years, I feel like I’ve seen a handful of films that attempt to illustrate or at least make a case for the redeem-ability of white supremacists. The belief is that some series of connections with those they would suppress, coupled with perhaps a faith-based revelation or a bad run-in with their own kind would facilitate the turn. Many of these films (like last year’s Best of Enemies, starring Sam Rockwell, who seems to have made a sub-career out of playing such men) are based on true historical events, while others (Skin, also from 2019) are fictional creations that seem strange to me in a time when our president is making a case that “you also had people that were very fine people on both sides” of our country’s racial divide. Why should audiences care if a supremacist can be turned to good and shown the error of his ways?
With the Sundance Audience Award (Drama) winner from 2018, Burden, writer/director Andrew Heckler (making his directing debut after years as an actor) opts to tell the true story of Ku Klux Klan member Mike Burden (Garrett Hedlund), who was raised practically from birth in South Carolina in an atmosphere of hate and segregation, under the mentorship of Klan leader Tom Griffin (Tom Wilkinson), who has turned a shuttered small-town movie theater into the country’s first Redneck Store and KKK Museum. The very presence of this establishment is inflammatory to the local black population, which immediately begins organizing protests under the leadership of Baptist preacher Kennedy (Forest Whitaker).
Burden helps to run the store, and Griffin is so impressed with his enthusiasm that he turns over the lease to the place to Burden, making certain he takes it over after the older Griffin gets to be too old to run it. Around this time, Burden also meets a single mother named Judy (the chameleon-like Andrea Riseborough), who initially knows about Mike’s Klan affiliation, but chooses to ignore it as long as it doesn’t impact her young son. But there are few things the Klan love more than to initiate at a young age, so before long, Judy gives Mike an ultimatum: the Klan or us, and Burden chooses his heart.
But Burden is actually two movies in one. As we track Mike’s struggle to break free of the family he has known most of his life, we also follow the path of Rev. Kennedy, who insists that the only way to win over your enemy is not with violence but with love, a path that not all members of his family or congregation are able to follow. Although the two men’s paths cross occasionally outside the story, Burden and Kennedy impact each others’ lives forever when Mike is cut off from everything he knew as part of his life with the Klan and ends up homeless and unable to find work. When Kennedy spots the three struggling, he offers to take them into his own home, sending shock waves through his community, all of whom know Burden all too well.
While Whitaker and Riseborough are particularly good here, Hedlund (who I usually like) seems to have decided to take on this strange body-language affectation that I guess is meat to resemble Southern swagger, but it comes off like he can’t control the muscles in his neck, like a baby (this condition was once called George Clooney Disease, at least in my house). The times when he is most impressive involve scenes with Mike’s childhood friend Clarence Brooks (Usher Raymond), whose young son happens to be best friends with Judy’s boy. Since joining the Klan, Mike and Clarence don’t talk much, but they also had a childhood bond that they re-examine once Mike steps away from the hate group. It’s a rough ride between the two men, but it’s one worth witnessing.
But here’s the thing: I’m basically done giving racist Southerners a chance, even those in the movies. I’m at a loss as to why I’m supposed to care about the roads to redemption these people take, when there are tens of thousands of other stories of those they have wronged that are just as or more poignant and usually don’t come with a promise for a happy conclusion. Burden is competently made by Heckler and producer Robbie Brenner (Dallas Buyers Club), and I admire that they wanted to tell this story and underscore the capacity some have for forgiveness, but I consider a great deal of the American South a lost cause, now more so than ever thanks to our country’s leadership. So it isn’t that this story isn’t worth telling; it’s that I’m a bit beyond my capacity to forgive at this point.
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