‘Burden’ takes on the weight of a story too heavy for one film
Unpacking the complexities of the film with Director Andrew Heckler
Directed by Andrew Heckler
Screenplay by Andrew Heckler
Starring Garrett Hedlund, Forest Whitaker, Andrea Riseborough, Usher
Now playing in select theaters
A lot of things have changed since 1996, but some stories remain strikingly relevant. In 1996, even when some parts of the country regarded the KKK as a thing of the past, the Klan was still alive and thriving in towns like Laurens, South Carolina. While a headline announcing “The Redneck KKK Museum Opens in Small Southern Town Square” was already enough to catch the attention of then-actor Andrew Heckler, the even more striking story that would launch Heckler into his first directing role came one year later: “Klansman Sells Redneck Shop and KKK Museum to Black Baptist Minister.” This stupefying transaction, involving ex-Klansman Mike Burden (Garrett Hedlund) and Reverend Kennedy (Forest Whitaker), served as the basis for Heckler’s film Burden.
Appropriately named for both the main character and the weight of the story, the film follows Mike as he is forced to deconstruct a life’s worth of racist beliefs when he leaves behind the Klan, the only family he has ever known. His girlfriend Judy (Andrea Riseborough) is a rare voice of acceptance in their small town in South Carolina, and with her urging, he leaves the Klan. This decision leaves Mike, Judy, and Judy’s young son isolated and endangered, giving them a glimpse of the kind of hardships black people in their area have to suffer through everyday because of the Klan. When they meet Reverend Kennedy, the leader of the black congregation in their town, he extends unprecedented kindness to them, abiding by his morals but going against the people around him.
Director Andrew Heckler and I spoke through the phone to unpack the film’s complex themes of reconciliation, understanding, and race. Although the story may seem like a response to current racial tensions, Heckler emphasized that the film is “a simple story about love overcoming hate” rather than a political stance. His goal, from the point when he began the script for Burden in 1999 to when he started filming much later in 2016, remained to create a story whose characters were humans, not labels. “We’re so fast to be a headline society and not really read the article,” Heckler remarked.
Even going beyond simply “reading the article,” Heckler’s film was powered by his urge to understand the story behind the “Redneck Museum” on a deeper level. After discovering those headlines, he immersed himself in South Carolina, where he interacted with the black community as well as the white supremacists who were affected by the story. “It really required me to put aside all of my personal beliefs and to try to not judge anybody,” Heckler reflected, “but to understand them and try to figure out where they were coming from.”
With this understanding, the movie certainly does not excuse any of the racist, violent behaviors of Mike and the Klansmen, but it highlights the long-term effects of the mob mentality and deep-rooted racism that the Klan instills in its members from a young age. The film tries to find complexity even in such established belief systems, playing with the idea that humans have inconsistencies that do not fit into general stereotypes. Mike’s trajectory is especially nonlinear — one moment teaching a young black child to fish, and the next, beating up a black teenager in his car. While this imperfect progression speaks to the nonbinary nature of prejudice, it is difficult at times to be convinced of the changes in Mike’s beliefs.
The setting in which these events take place contribute to the authenticity of the film. The coloring of the shots, with gray tones, dusty browns, and muted greens, harkens back to almost the palette of Western films, evoking a rurality and sense of a past era. The scenes of the characters’ daily routines remind audiences of Heckler’s realization that even in strained environments, “it’s not all just hate.” Family dinners and pastimes like basketball or car racing help establish the different communities in the film without always referencing racial tensions. At the same time, Burden does not gloss over the crude, violent, and degrading actions of Klansmen, with white supremacists taunting black citizens through verbal and physical abuse as an established part of the film’s landscape.
Being realistic was important to Heckler, especially considering the true story behind the film. The actors in the film were able to meet and interact with the real Mike Burden and Reverend Kennedy, as well as other people in the story. The detailed performances by the main cast prove the significance of the opportunity they had “to breathe [the real people] in, to sort of get these guys under their skin and pick up nuances, accents, and the flavors of who these characters are.” With the burden of accurately depicting the real people, Heckler and the cast felt “an extra obligation to put in 100% effort” for these “real heroes of the movie.”
Hedlund’s performance characterizes this flawed protagonist with a slow, uneven gait and slouched head, making it slightly uncomfortable to watch Mike. Through this motor dissonance alone, Mike’s inner emotional conflicts become visible, and Hedlund successfully conveys the overwhelming discomfort that Mike feels in his own skin. The Reverend is spotlighted as well, and Forest Whitaker’s quiet control works perfectly to play a man whose morality and spirituality are strong enough for him to act against the wishes of his family, community, and even himself. Whitaker is charismatic and smooth as the virtuous preacher in striking contrast with Hedlund’s awkward, mumbly portrayal of Mike Burden, creating a dichotomy around which much of the film revolves.
The strain that Kennedy’s relationship with Mike puts on his family creates charged moments that present the taxing, emotional challenges behind the glossy visage of acceptance and forgiveness. Heckler is ambitious to tackle many themes in the film, but unfortunately, the pain of the black community and the anger of the black youth with the Reverend’s message of love even in the face of hate, remain largely unresolved and unexplored. Giving more attention to the conflict within the black community about how to respond to Mike and the Reverend’s actions could have been an opportunity for Burden to fulfill the goal of being “able to look at someone else’s point of view,” but the film falls flat there. Heckler’s goal to expose different sides of the story falls strongly on Mike and the Klan’s side, with the occasional deep but mostly disappointing role of the black residents. “The whole experience was a challenge,” Heckler said, acknowledging the difficulty in writing about racial tensions in a way that did justice to the real story.
By focusing heavily on the characters of Mike, Judy, and Reverend Kennedy, Burden’s main fault is that it neglects its other characters. Many of the supporting roles feel like they are there only to quite literally support Mike’s journey. The script’s convenient usage of Clarence (Usher), a black man who grew up with Mike, and Judy’s son, with whom Mike is always caring and playful, create relationships that feel obviously concocted rather than organic. The way in which Mike’s interactions are staged and paced along his road to change makes what is a true story seem unnaturally forced at certain points. Overall, the message of the film is delivered in a way that is clumsily straightforward rather than nuanced.
Burden’s themes of racism, reconciliation, and love are undoubtedly fascinating, especially considering that the events of the film occurred in real life, but in its focus to get these ideas across, the film loses some finesse. However, the idea that “if we’re all willing to look at each other, we can maybe effect some change” rings loudly and passes on the necessary burden of continuing and improving this discussion.