Release Date: February 28, 2020
Cast: Garrett Hedlund, Forest Whitaker, Andrea Riseborough, Tom Wilkinson, Tess Harper, Usher
Director: Andrew Heckler
Studio: Ben Kenwright Films, The Fyzz Facility, Unburdened Entertainment
Distributor: 101 Studios
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I keep walking into screenings of prestige dramas about race and expecting bottom shelf Oscar-bait. I’m suspicious of films like Green Book (2018) or Crash (2005) which each won the best picture Oscar with narratives of white protagonists reaching out and helping their black neighbors, despite racist peers surrounding them and the protagonists’ own prejudices. These films have been parodied and ridiculed enough that the white savior trope (and genre) has become a cliche. Walking into Burden I felt that suspicion again.
Based on a true story, the film follows Michael Burden (Garrett Hedlund), the second-in-command of a small chapter of the Ku Klux Klan which recently opened “The Redneck KKK Museum” in the impoverished town of Lawrence, South Carolina. Michael falls in love with a single mother, Judy — played by Andrea Riseborough delivering a standout and subtle performance in the film — who ultimately persuades him to leave the Klan. To protect Michael and his new family, the local black Pastor, Reverend David Kennedy (Forest Whittaker), shelters them in his home. Seeing another movie about race that focuses on the experience of a white man kept me bristling but it didn’t exactly fall into the category of a white savior movie.
What I think that writer-director Andrew Heckler gets right in this is how he discusses the apparatus of racism and how it is used to soothe disenfranchised white people. Reverend Kennedy has a moment where, almost to the audience, he expresses pity for a disenfranchised group that has no clear cause to blame that disenfranchisement on. This is where the Klan and its beliefs provide comfort.
Kennedy’s opposite — KKK patriarch and father-figure to Michael — Tom Griffin (Tom Wilkinson), is a fixer, he has connections all across town from landlords to the police. As the owner of the local repossession group in Lawrence, he can make financial woes disappear (or reappear) almost on a whim. This is a good friend to have and his position allows him to sow the seeds of racism in a desperate population that feels abandoned. He is presented as a conman and charlatan to the loving and honest Reverend, a portrayal aided by Whitaker’s well-documented gravitas and charisma.
This parallel is not the only one drawn in Burden, the script and cast are built on a series of dramatic foils: the community of Reverend Kennedy’s Baptist church and the KKK; Michael and his old classmate Clarence Brooks (Usher Raymond); the respective children of Michael and Clarence. Though sometimes the comparisons run a bit too close: one moment uses fire to draw a comparison and cuts from a KKK cross burning to a church campfire where they remember the victims of racist attacks on other black Christian communities.
The scenes are meant to reflect each other, and Burden doesn’t argue that there are any equivalencies in these ceremonies, but there is an unsettling feeling of seeing both events in the light of a supportive community. This could perhaps play to the strengths of this film in discussing what drives people to bigotry. This discomfort is drawn out watching Michael’s journey – as he assaults a black man in a car, knowing where the story will go you have to wonder if that’s something you can forgive him for.
However, the movie holds is white protagonist accountable, his growth is hard-fought and there is little tolerance for residual bigotry on his part, and he ultimately confesses in court not only to implicate Tom Griffin but also to his own crimes as a member of the KKK. Reverend Kennedy, in one of my favorite moments, confides in his teenage son that Michael is not someone he wants in his life, but to prove his faith in God, he has to have faith in Michael Burden.
This is where I wish that the Reverend had not been sidelined as the medium for Michael’s moral growth, his journey and resolve are more engaging to me; what the process and sacrifice of choosing love and acceptance is in the face of hatred. This is not a passive choice of choosing non-violence as Kennedy leads an ongoing protest against the KKK museum throughout the film. It is an active conscious choice to not give in to fear and hate, and this is a lesson he passes on to Michael.
This is what I mean when I say that it is not entirely a white savior movie. Michael is the one being saved, and as much as he helps to resolve the conflict with the Lawrence KKK chapter, he hardly feels active in those choices, he is being pulled by the woman he loves and pushed away by his former family into a new one. It is the work done by Judy and Reverend Kelly that changes Michael rather than his own commitment to anything else.
This is echoed in the performances. While Whitaker and Riseborough carry the movie through with strong performances, Hedlund stumbles, literally. He plays Michael always as mumbly and shifting. The way he sways as he walks creates a sense of motion sickness that is not helped by the shaky handheld camera used for filming the entire movie. Sure, the artistic choices taken by actors, directors, and cinematographers are used for the sake of artistic messaging and are certainly for a purpose but there is a point where an audience needs to watch the film and follow its visually, and that was more difficult than necessary for this one.
Despite these shortcomings in the subject matter, performances, and techniques in Burden, I honestly left feeling touched by the sentiment expressed. It also seemed like an attempt not to rehash old ideas about both sides having a point and how singular white protagonists can make a difference, but that these are social problems at the heart of communities. As much as Burden steers clear of some cliches and examines the lived reality of bigotry and hate, I can’t help feeling that there could be moments with a subtler touch or better use of its supporting cast where Burden could have really impressed.