Burden

Judy and Mike sitting on a log

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.

Reverend Kennedy outside the KKK Museum
Rev Kennedy outside the KKK Museum



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.



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© Steve Morrissey 2021









On the Road

Sam Riley and Kristen Stewart in On the Road

 

A movie for every day of the year – a good one

 

 

21 October

 

 

Jack Kerouac dies, 1969

On this day in 1969, the writer born Jean-Louis Kérouac died, from internal bleeding brought on by long-term alcohol abuse. He was the child of French Canadians and his first language was French, though he picked up English later and was fluent in his teenage years. He won a football scholarship to Columbia University, New York, but dropped out. There, in New York, he met Neal Cassady, Allen Ginsberg and William S Burroughs, among others, the core of the Beat Generation writers, the latest iteration of 20th century romantics. Discharged from war service in the Merchant Marine due to a “schizoid personality”, he set about writing in a style highly influenced by jazz, though it wasn’t until the 1950s that he started to make a name for himself, after the publication of The Town and the City. The work he is best remembered for these days, On the Road, started in French years before, followed. It was a semi-factual retelling of his travels with Neal Cassady and other Beats in the late 40s. Splurged out in semi-associative freeform recollection, the novel was typed out onto one continuous 120 foot (37 metre) long piece of paper, the better to catch the spontaneity that Kerouac craved (Truman Capote would later bitch, “That’s not writing, that’s typing”). On the Road struggled to get a publisher, because of its graphic drug scenes, sexual episodes, perceived amorality, and so on. Though Kerouac saw it as a book about Catholic guys looking for redemption. He wrote drafts of ten more novels while marrying and fleeing, travelling the USA, broke for the most part. In 1957 On the Road was published, Kerouac was proclaimed the voice of a generation, fame and fortune arrived, his previously unpublished works went into print, and Kerouac kept writing. And drinking. And writing. His post 1957 output includes Desolation Angels, The Dharma Bums, Big Sur and Vanity of Duluoz. All of his books remain in print.

 

 

On the Road (2011, dir: Walter Salles)

Taking his cue from Jack Kerouac’s jazz-flavoured prose style, Walter Salles goes for a loose improvisational adaptation of the Beat era’s most famous novel. Not everyone went a bundle on the casting – but of Sam Riley (as Jack Kerouac and his alter ego Sal Paradise), Garrett Hedlund (as Neal Cassady aka Dean Moriarty) and Kristen Stewart (as LuAnne Henderson aka Marylou), it’s only really Hedlund who seems slightly wrong, aiming for hipster cool and coming across a bit like a TV host. Stewart, internet trolls might be sad to hear, is excellent as the girlfriend of one guy who might well switch horses midstream, and catches that dangerous air of a girl who’ll do just about anything, and that includes going for the home and a baby. The plot is as freeform as the music it draws inspiration from, a series of long road trips in a big old Buick, kids lighting out to wherever – Chicago, San Francisco, Mexico. All the while Kirsten makes eyes she shouldn’t at Sam and Tom Sturridge (playing Allen Ginsberg) makes eyes at Garrett, who is adept at suggesting that while Neal/Dean might not be gay enough to go there too willingly, he is at least open to persuasion. It’s a prototype hippie journey, the Ken Kesey Magic Bus across America an entire generation earlier, when the doomy poverty of The Grapes of Wrath era still hung heavy and it was even more obvious that the sort of romantic liberation on offer was even more a man-only affair. If reality offered the biggest kicks to the men, the film provides an opportunity for female acting talent. Alongside the excellent Stewart, there’s Kirsten Dunst reminding us of how good she can be, and Amy Adams and Alice Braga are also worth spending time with. If the film lacks the fireworks that some people wanted from it, that’s partly because, like the book, it takes these people at their own self-aggrandising estimation of themselves. Plus the fact that, just by showing us the “liberation” project at one of its key mythic moments, it becomes all the more clear that this project has now run its course. And you can’t blame Kristen Stewart for that.

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • Lots of great performances – Kirsten Dunst is particularly fine
  • Kerouac – inspiration for people from Bob Dylan to Katy Perry
  • Eric Gautier’s beautiful cinematography
  • Livewire jazz, from Charlie Parker, Slim Gaillard et al

 

© Steve Morrissey 2013

 

 

On the Road – at Amazon