There are two stories in Andrew Heckler’s Burden. One revolves around Mike Burden, a Klansman in Laurens, South Carolina who decides to leave the Klan. The other revolves around Reverend Kennedy in Laurens, who fights against the Klan but decides to try and help the Klansman. For Heckler, telling the story of Mike Burden is more important, and yet it feels like the weaker of the two narratives. Stories matter, but we also have to consider whose story we choose to tell. Following Burden is well intentioned, and an attempt to show that an evil man can change, but his story always feels tedious and at the expense of the far more captivating Reverend Kennedy.
In 1996, Mike Burden (Garrett Hedlund) is a rising member of the local KKK, and he, under the guidance of lead Klansman Tom Griffin (Tom Wilkinson) open a “Redneck & KKK Museum” in town. Local Reverend Kennedy (Forest Whitaker) opposes the museum and starts protesting against it. Mike becomes caught in the middle when he falls for Judy (Andrea Riseborough), who starts chipping away at the hatred in his heart. Eventually, Mike decides to leave the Klan for Judy, but they retaliate, leaving Mike, Judy, and Judy’s son, Franklin, destitute. Kennedy takes pity on Judy and Franklin, and resolves to see if it’s possible to help Mike even though Mike’s greatest enemy is himself.
Burden is based on true events, and yet I can’t help but feel like Heckler’s decision to tell Mike Burden’s story is a salve for white viewers. In the grander scheme of things, yes, it is a positive message that even a die-hard Klansman like Mike Burden can see the error of his ways if good people come into his life and show him a better path. And to Heckler’s credit, he shoots the movie with no romanticism, getting down into the gutter of Burden’s rural life and showing why the Klan, with all their repulsive beliefs, are appealing because they offer Mike a family he doesn’t see anywhere else. And yet at over two hours, stretching out this message, especially when you know where it’s going to go (we’re not expecting Mike to go back to the Klan) can be a serious slog.
Stuck in a supporting role is Kennedy, and throughout Burden, I couldn’t help but wonder what the film would like if Kennedy were the lead and Mike was the supporting character. Mike is in a redemption narrative, which is fine, but I was more captivated by Kennedy’s story because through Mike, Kennedy’s deepest values are challenged. Challenging Mike’s values are easy because Mike’s values are obviously repulsive. Challenging Kennedy’s values, which are rooted in his Christianity and a need to love anyone who comes looking for forgiveness despite the gravity of their sins, is far more difficult. We’d all like to believe that doing the right thing is easy, but with Kennedy (and thanks to the strong performances from both Hedlund and Whitaker), we see that there’s a real cost to helping people who have perpetrated great hatred.
Kennedy’s story is the one we need right now—we need to learn how to reach out to people we find repulsive if they come looking for forgiveness, but in Mike’s story, we have the “burden” about learning to shake off hatred. And while we can all agree that breaking free of hate is important and that racism is bad, that’s an obvious lesson for most audiences, especially when you have the clear-cut bigotry of the KKK as opposed to the more casual racism of people who claim to like black people but also don’t see a problem with Confederate statues.
Other-ing racists like Mike Burden and only seeing that kind of hatred as endemic among a certain radical group rather than something ingrained into our culture makes Mike’s story, while honorable, also tedious and distant. Furthermore, the focus on Mike reduces supporting characters like Judy and Kennedy into serving the redemption narrative of a white guy, and while the contributions of the real Judy and Kennedy shouldn’t be diminished, it feels like they have the more interesting stories, and those are the ones that feel worth telling right now.