If Stanley Kramer were alive today, he would have wanted to make Burden. A socially conscious film of the old school, this appalling tale of continued Ku Klux Klan violence has been a dream project of veteran actor Andrew Heckler’s virtually since the time the inciting incidents took place, in 1996.
The sincere historical and thematic concerns pertaining to persistent small-town Southern racism come through loud and clear, but the writer-director’s inexperience behind the camera is all too evident, as the painful but ultimately cathartic tale bumps along for more than two hours without ever finding an aesthetic form. All the same, the cast is mostly fine, and recent events may lend this independently made project sufficient perceived topicality to generate sympathetic media attention and favor in some markets.
No doubt most Americans like to consider the Klan a thing of the past, that the civil rights struggle at least purged the South of such conspicuous racial violence as existed before, that the New South has moved on. Well, that’s probably what people thought in in the 1990s as well, when some local white men quietly gained access to a defunct downtown movie theater in Laurens, S.C., did an overhaul and reopened the venue as The Redneck KKK Museum.
This little project is the brainstorm of local Klan leader and unreconstructed racist Tom Griffin (Tom Wilkinson), who presides over frequent gatherings of young acolytes whose violent and derelict behavior Griffin actively encourages. His favorite disciple is the explosive Mike Burden (Garrett Hedlund), an orphan he took under wing as a youth and inculcated in hard-line hatred of blacks and integration. The puzzling aspect of Wilkinson’s otherwise solid performance is that he’s the only actor in the film without a Southern accent, a strange thing in that many Brits, from Charles Laughton to half the cast from 12 Years a Slave, have been mastering that for years.
Burden, an army vet who now works for Griffin as a repo man, is close to a beast of a man; as Hedlund plays him, he lurches rather than walks, and his head wobbles oddly from side to side like a bobble head. Although very good looking, he’s poor white trash personified, scary in his ignorance.
Just as down on her luck is Judy Harbeson (Andrea Riseborough, another Brit who does Southern just fine, thank you). A scrawny lady with a well-behaved young son, she makes no secret of her attraction to Burden as they attend a desultory night at the local racetrack.
All in all, in Laurens it feels far more like the 1950s than the 1990s, a sense underlined by the nature of the town’s black leadership. This is personified by an older preacher, Reverend Kennedy (Forest Whitaker), whose faith in the Lord to get his people through enjoys support from the parental generation but may not be entirely convincing to the younger black men and teenagers, who are the principal targets of Griffin’s goons.
The pastor continues to work in the patient, religiously informed style of Dr. King and at one point even gets Jesse Jackson to come support his protest against the museum. But old man Griffin, having lit the fuse, wants an explosion; during the reverend’s next protest, he sends Burden to a roof with a rifle with which he’s meant to shoot the preacher. But at last, having seen enough of his mentor’s hatred and been sufficiently influenced by his new girlfriend’s more enlightened views of interracial relations, he can’t go through with it and abjures Griffin’s role in his life.
But this doesn’t mean Griffin is done with Burden. The old man has him beaten to a pulp, bled of money and deprived of his car as well as any employment opportunity with a white business. And he wipes clean Judy’s prospects as well. Out of Christian charity, Reverend Kennedy briefly takes the destitute couple in, but his son and others can’t abide a longtime KKK member in their midst. Still, it all ends up with Burden becoming a new man, being baptized and feeling compelled to redeem himself.
It’s an eyebrow-raising true tale, one aided and abetted onscreen by the solid cast and strong sense of commitment. But Heckler is caught somewhere between being a journalistic historian and a dramatist without seeming expert at either. His screenplay connects all the dots of the story with no sense of shaping or modulation.
Even more noticeable is his uninflected direction and visual style. Every scene seems designed for equal impact, as if Heckler put his foot down on the gas pedal and left it at the same spot for more than two hours. The camera always seems to be drifting around searching for the right place to be but only finding it by chance; similar shots are often cut together as if the beginning of one take is being joined to the latter part of another take. Shots seldom seem to be in the right place for maximum dramatic impact. Visually and tonally, it all seems haphazard and imprecise.
But the performances, particularly those by Hedlund and Riseborough, go some distance to keeping the film involving, as does the startling nature of the story itself. That will be enough for some.
Production company: Unburdened Productions
Cast: Garrett Hedlund, Forest Whitaker, Andrea Riseborough, Tom Wilkinson, Crystal Fox, Usher Raymond IV, Austin Hebert, Tess Harper, Taylor Gregory
Director: Andrew Heckler
Screenwriter: Andrew Heckler
Producers: Robbie Brenner, Jincheng, Bill Kenwright
Executive producers: Kevin McKeon, Gabby Revilla Lugo, Jeff Kwaninetz
Director of photography: Jeremy Rouse
Production designer: Stephanie Hamilton
Costume designer: Anette Cseri
Editors: Julie Monroe, Saar Klein
Music: Dickson Hinchliffe
Casting: Rich Delia
Venue: Sundance Film Festival (U.S. Dramatic Competition)