For someone to truly change their core being, they must have a reason. “Because it’s the right thing to do” is usually not enough…it must be something much deeper like self-preservation or love. For Mike Burden, self-preservation was what kept him loyal to the Ku Klux Klan, while love is what drove him to walk away. Burden is based on a true story from 1996 in Laurens, South Carolina, and it’s the feature film directorial debut of Andrew Heckler (who also wrote the screenplay).
Garrett Hedlund plays Mike Burden, a war veteran and dedicated Klan soldier who helped open the Redneck KKK Museum. The leader of the local KKK chapter is Tom Griffin, played by Tom Wilkinson. Griffin is a despicable man and a father figure to Mike. The great Forest Whitaker (Oscar winner for The Last King of Scotland, 2006) plays local Reverend Kennedy, who preaches love and forgiveness while leading his congregation in protest of the new museum.
Poverty permeates the town of Laurens every bit as much as racism. Mike is employed by Griffin in his repo business, and drives around town in a truck advertising ‘Plantation Concrete,’ a business name obviously selected for effect. These poor southern whites take out their frustrations on the only group they view as lower than themselves – local black folks.
Mike’s job has him crossing paths with Judy (the always excellent Andrea Riseborough), a single mom just trying to survive and raise her son the right way. Sparks fly between Mike and Judy, and she delivers an ultimatum. His choice to walk away from the Klan for love means his life, and Judy’s gets immediately much tougher. An extraordinary act of kindness from Reverend Kennedy has its own ramifications, and the complexity of racism begins to show.
Supporting characters are played by Tess Harper (Tom’s wife), musician Usher Raymond (Judy’s friend), Crystal Fox (Reverend Kennedy’s wife) and Dexter Darden (Reverend Kennedy’s teenage son). Each of these characters offers a glimpse at how hatred evolves and perpetuates, especially in a poverty-stricken small southern town. Unfortunately, two hours is simply not enough to dig deep or make sense of systemic racism. However, personalizing the feelings can shine some light on the topic.
Director Heckler met with Reverend Kennedy in the late 1990s and was able to write the story based on their conversations. As the film ends, we see actual clips of interviews with Reverend Kennedy, Judy, and Mike Burden…leaving us to wonder if a stellar documentary might be buried in the video vault. The film was an audience winner at Sundance in 2018, and it appears 8-10 minutes have been edited out, leaving a better paced film. The hand-held camera work works against the natural drama and tension of most scenes, although the film does provide some insight into how a person might go about rehabilitating their own poisoned thoughts. That’s certainly worth a look.