Hollywood has had its fair share of tackling the societal pariah known as racism in potent melodramatic narratives meant to reinforce the passion and poison behind such inhumane atrocities. Although some of these “based-on-a-true-story” racial film projects are daringly reflective and moving in their indignation, there is always that fine line where the familiar territory covered has been compromised through well-meaning but thinly conceived redemption. Sadly, ineffective race relation dramas often tiptoe into lofty inquiries it fails to address both solidly and accordingly.
Writer-director Andrew Heckler serves up a compelling but seemingly trite tension tale Burden that asks the key question: can sheltering a reformed Klansman be the pinnacle of unrelenting faith for a Southern black minister trying to heal the tested consciousness of his fractured community in the late nineties? Again, Burden means well as it strives for the steady conviction of its redemptive pulse but Heckler never really challenges the embedded rage that permeates in the twisted mindset of radical racists and the targeted oppressed alike in this pat and preachy showcase of hatred and forgiveness.
Indeed, Burden talks a good game in terms of its caustic warning about the notoriously gross intolerance of toxic white supremacy and the continued oppression of the disillusioned masses of minorities both past and present. However, Heckler never gets to the meat of the ballistic bone by addressing the heart of the sordid matter. A former Klansman finding his humanity courtesy of a “turn the other cheek” Southern black preacher seems inspirational on the synthetic surface. Still, why not constructively show the genuine consequences behind both men’s decisions to disavow a racist past and embrace the salvation of a once devoted hatemonger? Burden simply commits the cardinal mistake of floating in calming waters with its sympathetic outlook instead of forcefully concentrating on the real fallout of each man’s mission to conform in the aftermath of such a hurdle regarding overt racism.
Period piece race and redemption films such as last year’s The Best of Enemies seek to neatly wrap up the forgiving foundation of Klansman intimidation while reinforcing black-oriented forgiveness without exploring the honest psychology of such problematic and systematic racial biases on a grand scale. The so-called miracle of Klansman contrition feels manipulative, uneven and contrived in Burden and never really delves thoroughly into the tainted psyche of the victimized targets of the spewed hatred from the racist violator. Does the film even bother to explore the intentions of the black minister’s choice to cradle the jeopardized Klansman beyond the obvious dramatics? Is the black man of the cloth considered a conscientious healer of the divided community or a disgraced turncoat to his own maligned people?
Burden tells the real-life story of a small South Carolina in 1996 where the anticipation of opening a Ku Klux Klan museum has the region’s KKK faction rejoicing while the black townspeople revolting. Reverend Kennedy (Oscar-winner Forest Whitaker) is the black clergyman leading the charge to prevent the controversial museum from seeing any daylight. Tom Griffin (Tom Wilkinson) is the head Klan mastermind that wants this museum to exist and maintain a sense of unity for its devout members to unconditionally worship.
Both men–Kennedy and Griffin–are on the opposite ends of the protesting for the Ku Klux Klan museum. The one thing that they do have in common is Mike Burden (Garrett Hedlund, “Triple Frontier”, “Mudbound”) as both adversaries vie for his tortured soul. First, Tom Griffin is orphaned Mike’s adopted father and mentor whose constant teaching of KKK ideology and racial superiority has shaped the young man’s racist outlook. Naturally, Mike is steeped in the Klan’s landscape of race-baiting techniques. So it goes without questioning that the KKK museum is a prized concept for blue-collar worker Mike Burden because it is precious to his detestable Daddy Dearest Tom and the Klan organization.
Later, Mike develops an awakening of sorts when he falls for the lovely Judy (Andrea Riseborough), a single mother whose disdain for the Klan and other racist groups is prominent. Judy’s child even plays with and befriends black kids–something that Mike used to do before being corrupted by Tom Griffin and his corrosive crew. The catch, of course, is that Mike needs to change his racist cluttered heart if he really wants a solid and loving relationship with his sensible sweetheart and her impressionable offspring.
As for Reverend Kennedy, his reaching out to Mike is crucial because if he can save and salvage whatever decency is left inside the tumultuous KKK cad. Kennedy can actually feel that there is hope for humanity–at least in his neck of the woods anyway. What better way to undermine Klan museum founder Tom Griffin than to reform his adopted son Mike and pray for a better tomorrow. Inviting the divisive Mike and his love interest Judy to break bread with his own family at home is a faithful gesture beyond reason for the accepting Reverend Kennedy.
The noteworthy performances in Burden are strongly serviceable in terms of the presented pathos and pain hindered by the key protagonists. One cannot overlook the same one-note sentiments that these run-of-the-mill Southern race-related dramas lack…the ability to actively confront the rawness of redneck racists as black apologists sit back and endure the damage without solidified merit. Redemption expositions are cozy and thought-provoking in concept but nicely wrapped feel-good fables such as Burden seem to be holding back the realness of its provoked outrage.
DIRECTOR: Andrew Heckler
STARRING: Forest Whitaker, Garrett Hedlund, Tom Wilkinson, Andrea Riseborough, Crystal Fox, Usher Raymond, Tess Harper
RUN TIME: 117 minutes