Producers: Robbie Brenner, Jincheng and Bill Kenwright Director: Andrew Heckler Screenplay: Andrew Heckler Cast: Garrett Hedlund, Forest Whitaker, Andrea Riseborough, Tom Wilkinson, Crystal R. Fox, Usher Raymond, Dexter Darden, Austin Hebert, Tess Harper and Taylor Gregory Distributor: 101 Studios
Not long ago, in Robin Bissell’s fact-based “The Best of Enemies,” a Klansman in Durham, North Carolina, abandoned his racist ideology after participating in a 1971 series of community meetings, joining with a civil-rights activist to work for racial justice—specifically in terms of school integration—and infuriating his comrades. “Burden” tells a similar story, and does so reasonably well; though it’s familiar, one can hardly help but be moved by the positive transformation in the protagonist’s attitude. Still, it’s a merely adequate telling of a story that should have packed a greater punch.
Based on an incident that occurred in Laurens, South Carolina more than two decades ago, the film centers of Mike Burden (Garrett Hedlund), a member of a repo crew run by local businessman Tom Griffin (Tom Wilkinson), the owner of a concrete firm. The deceptively soft-spoken Griffin is also the leader of the local KKK chapter, and army vet Burden a devoted follower, whom the older man treats like a son. They work together to transform a one-time movie theatre into Griffin’s long-time dream—a “redneck museum” celebrating the Confederate past and white supremacy—the deed to which Griffin pointedly entrusts to Mike.
That spurs Reverend David Kennedy (Forest Whitaker), pastor of a local Baptist church, to lead street protests against the plan. He counsels peaceful but determined action, but younger members of his congregation—including his son Kelvin (Dexter Darden) to consider the use of force, especially since members of Griffin’s crew often brutalize blacks in the community and the police are complicit in their actions.
Meanwhile on one of his repo jobs Burden connects with Judy Harbeson (Andrea Riseborough) a single mother with a cute young son, Franklin (Taylor Gregory). He bonds with them, even though Judy is friends with Clarence (Usher Raymond), a black man, and Franklin’s best pal is Clarence’s son. Judy’s antipathy toward racial intolerance gradually affects him, leading to a rupture with Griffin, his expulsion from the Klan, and his loss of his job.
It’s when Mike and his new family are living on the streets that they encounter Kennedy, who not only buys them a meal but offers them a room in his house, much to the distress of Kelvin and his friends, and even the Reverend’s ever-supportive wife Janice (Crystal R. Fox). He even gets him a job at a construction site, and Mike will eventually choose to be baptized.
That’s not to say that all goes swimmingly, of course. Griffin’s crew is a violent bunch, and Mike is looked upon as a traitor. Nor are Kennedy’s followers of a single mind, especially about whether forgiveness should be extended to a man like Burden. But a twist at the close—though effectively foreordained—brings a satisfying outcome, and there are the inevitable clips of the real figures as part of the final credits.
Riseborough, Whitaker and Wilkinson all give accomplished performances, but the major reason to see “Burden” is Hedlund. He’s previous work has been spotty, but he throws himself into this role enthusiastically—some will say too much so, since his physical embodiment of the character—a loping swagger of a walk, his head bobbing constantly to and fro—can get exhausting to watch. Nonetheless he certainly makes the character memorable.
The rest of the cast—including Raymond, Darden and Gregory—are all fine, and production designer Stephanie Hamilton has done a good job at recreating the period on what must have been a modest budget; the cinematography of Jeremy Rouse is more workmanlike than inspired, but is adequate to the purpose, though the editing by Julie Monroe and Saar Klein isn’t ideally smooth.
“Burden” is the writing-directing debut of veteran actor Andrew Heckler, and clearly a labor of love he has spent years bringing to the screen. It’s earnest and well-intentioned, and boasts some strong acting, but as a film it’s only a middling contribution to the library of tales dealing with the fight against persistent racism in America.