Burden? As in “white man’s burden”? Ironically, no. There’s a white saviour theme running right the way through Andrew Heckler’s film but it actually takes its name from its key character, Mike Burden, a lifelong member of the Klan who saw the error of his ways.
With the flying of Confederate flags in the US an ongoing point of contention when this movie was released in 2018, Burden has timeliness on its side, and a core cast so accomplished most first-time directors would auction their mothers to get hold of them – Garrett Hedlund as Mike, Andrea Riseborough as the woman whose love makes him see the light, Tom Wilkinson as the local racist-in-chief and Forest Whitaker as the reverend fighting the good fight.
The action centres on a movie theatre, once upon a time a strictly “Coloreds Only” kind of place, which is now being turned into a Ku Klux Klan museum, complete with Confederate flag fluttering outside, by good ol’ boy Tom Griffin (Wilkinson), much to the disgust of the local black citizenry, vocally led by Reverend Kennedy (Whitaker). Burden is a repo guy who spends his days visiting poor people who haven’t been keeping up the payments on their TVs, but away from the day job is widely seen as the anointed successor of Griffin. Which is why the deeds to the building housing the theatre have been vested in Burden, so as to keep this South Carolina town’s cultural goad in white hands should anything happen to Griffin.
Hedlund plays Burden as so congenitally dumb and inbred that you can almost forgive his kneejerk racism as the actions of someone who knows no better. Judy (Riseborough) is Nobel laureate material compared to Mike, a thoughtful soul whose kid hangs out with the black kid of local man Clarence (Usher Raymond). It’s this relationship – Judy and Clarence – that is the pin on which this film turns, or it would be if Clarence weren’t just a cipher, as many of this film’s black characters are.
Whitaker’s Rev Kennedy being the exception, a man of integrity, vigour and compassion who takes in Mike and Judy when they’re at a particularly low ebb and feeds them, thus eventually leading to a damascene conversion by Mike.
The film is set in the 1990s but Heckler deliberately makes the era a little hazy. It could be any time from the 1950s to the 2020s, and when a crowd gathers outside the KKK Museum at one point to protest, and chants “no justice, no peace” in an echo of Black Lives Matter the effect is only mildly anachronistic.
It’s a good looking film and well acted, with the cast all delivering more than was there on the page, but Heckler seems so concerned that we might sympathise with the wrong aspects of Mike and Judy’s characters that he leaves them under-developed – there’s just not very much to get hold of, particularly with Judy, who does little more than mope about when she’s not declaring her hot love for Mike.
Really this is all about Mike, who’s the only person to get an emotional arc, and even his is slow to get into gear. It’s only in the final act when Mike has to start fighting his way out of his corner that we start to get a real handle on his personality.
If drama is all about friction – between and within characters – it’s the element this undoubtedly heartfelt film could do with more of. Sanctimony hangs heavily on Burden, a two hour movie that would be vastly better with half an hour of running time removed. Which is something of a pity, since it’s a true story and one worth telling. The real Mike, Judy and the Reverend all appear over the end credits as a seal of authenticity.
Burden – Watch it/buy it at Amazon
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© Steve Morrissey 2021