‘Burden’: Change of heart over racism easier than taking off the hometown hood forever
With the understanding that the KKK factors heavily in the plot, you’d think the title “Burden” would have something to do with the onus of racism or the dismantling of it. But no, the film, based on true events, is simply about a gent named Mike Burden, a narrow-minded peckerwood who, à la “American History X” (1998), has an awakening to the hate etched so obviously in front of his face. The film, by actor turned first-time filmmaker Andrew Heckler (“Armageddon,” “Ally McBeal”), won the Dramatic Audience Award at Sundance 2018. But “Burden,” despite its prestigious pedigree and firebrand topic, is a fairly straight-ahead narrative that misses opportunities as it checks off social justice boxes.
As Burden, Garrett Hedlund (“Pan,” “Four Brothers”) gets the snaky, snot-snorting, chew-spitting redneck down to a T. The film catches up with Mike in the mid 1990s, just back from a stint in the military and about to pitch in with de facto father figure Tom Griffin (Tom Wilkinson), the grand leader of a podunk South Carolina chapter of the Klan who’s about to demo, remodel and transform the town’s derelict nickelodeon into a KKK gift shop and museum. The gory baubles of violence (knives, crosses and masks) are almost as cringeworthy as the frequent drop of the N-word from the beer-drinking bums who undertake the task. Such a public establishment doesn’t sit well with the Rev. David Kennedy (Forest Whitaker) or any of the African American population of Laurens, rightfully fearful of the Klan – and the law. Protests and violence ensue. Ultimately, because of his developing relationship with Judy (Andrea Riseborough), a single mother with a progressive mindset, and a rekindled friendship with childhood friend Clarence (Usher Raymond), Mike hits a crisis of conscious and wrestles with exiting the Klan. That proves to be a none too easy endeavor, and potentially dangerous.
The cast, most especially (and predictably) Hedlund and Academy Award winner Whitaker, execute Heckler’s vision with ardor and investment. Wilkinson, so good in everything does (“In the Bedroom,” “Michael Clayton”) nearly elevates his villainous Griffin to the realm of human complexity, but Heckler, doing double duty as screenwriter, doesn’t trust the audience enough – the shock of the N-word and notion of bred-in hate gets so overused they become just more drool in the spittoon. No matter, “Burden” in its generic construct manages to raise the flag effectively on racism and a chapter of history that’s too close and relevant to the here and now.
Tom Meek is a writer living in Cambridge. His reviews, essays, short stories and articles have appeared in the WBUR ARTery, The Boston Phoenix, The Boston Globe, The Rumpus, The Charleston City Paper and SLAB literary journal. Tom is also a member of the Boston Society of Film Critics and rides his bike everywhere.