Imagine reading the newspaper one day and finding a headline about the opening of the world’s first Ku Klux Klan museum. You’d be equally offended and fascinated. So was Andrew Heckler when he read about the opening of The Redneck Shop in Laurens, South Carolina which sold Confederate memorabilia, Ku Klux Klan robes, and served as a meeting place for Klansmen, Neo-Nazis, and other white supremacist organizations. It was this fascination that led to the creation of Heckler’s first featured film, Burden.
“Audiences can smell through anything that’s false, you know? In order to make a movie like this, that can really affect people, you had to be truthful and authentic…” – Andrew Heckler
You might not know Heckler by name, but you may have seen the actor on TV. He has appeared on everything from Fraiser to Law and Order. In 1996, he read the stories about how Mike Burden, a grand dragon in the Ku Klux Klan, helped create and open the infamous Redneck Shop inside the former Echo movie theater. On the outside stood Rev. David Kennedy, an African-American religious leader and social activist who organized peaceful protests outside the storefront. Eventually the two would become allies.
While at the time, Heckler’s real passion was serving at his Workhouse Theater in Tribeca, New York City. He was a founder of that theater, but this story wouldn’t let him rest. In a phone conversation with Andrew, I asked him why he choose this project to become his first movie.
“You know, it’s funny because that wasn’t necessarily by design because I wrote the movie in the year 2000,” he tells me. “But this story really resonated with me to the point where, you know, I just couldn’t forget it. I knew what it meant this much to me, it would mean this much to other people. So I ended up actually going down to South Carolina spending a lot of time down there and truthfully after I met the people and I just got I just sort of fell in love with them. I sort of felt obligated to tell their story as well.”
Klan leader Tom Griffin brought Mike Burden into his home, a Klan family, raising him as one of his own kids. And he learned to hate others with a different skin tone than his own. By the time the Redneck Shop opened up, Tom had given Mike the deed to the theater.
It was also near this time when Mike fell in love with Judy, a single mother who deeply despised the Klan. Demanding that he either choose the Klan or her, Mike eventually choose her. However, there are consequences when one leaves the Klan. Both Mike and Judy were fired from their jobs and soon they became homeless living in their car. That’s where Rev. Kennedy comes in.
Despite Mike’s background, the pastor invited the couple to live in his home, putting his own family in danger. It’s an amazing story about forgiveness. One that Heckler discovered firsthand. He visited the church, met Rev. Kennedy, Mike and Judy. However, Andrew felt that in order to tell a realistic story, he would need to need to know more about Burden’s Klan family and he did so by going undercover.
“I ended up spending the day at the redneck shop and the KKK museum with Klansmen” says Heckler. “I told them that I was a white supremacist from Colorado. I also spent a lot of time in Klan areas in South Carolina just hanging out. And what I realized is, it takes a lot of strength and fortitude to put aside your personal beliefs and put them aside and open your mind and open your heart and actually see people, the people who are under the hood. I thought it in order to tell a true story that affects change, I had to understand these guys. The truth is, you might fundamentally disagree with them, as I do, but you have to at least understand that they are people or you can’t change [anything]. I can’t tell a story that would that would be authentic or truthful if I hadn’t done that.”
People who watch Burden may be surprised to see this racist family is portrayed as a realistic and loving group of people.
“They look like family. It feels like family. Smells like family, “says Andrew. “But it’s a family built on hate and a family that’s built on hate is only skin deep. When you see a guy like Mike Burden, honestly, you would never think of him as vulnerable. You think he’s super tough and the kind of guy you don’t want to mess with. But you know, vulnerable people can get high jacked into these kinds of families because they’re looking for anything to make them feel like they belong or anything to make them feel like that they are loved. It’s a very thin line between the love that they show for him and hatred.”
Burden is a great movie, but it’s not a pleasant one. It breaks “the rules” in that it isn’t afraid to say the “N word” among a few other colorful phrases spread out throughout. For Andrew, he couldn’t have told the story without it.
“Audiences can smell through anything that’s false, you know? In order to make a movie like this, that can really affect people, you had to be truthful and authentic… I understand it’s bad language, I’m not immune to that, but on the other hand, if you’re not using it, you’re really not telling the story.”
As a way of saying thanks to Rev. Kennedy, Mike Burden gave him partial ownership of the Redneck Shop. After a long legal battle, The Redneck Shop finally closed in 2012 and it was ruled that rightful ownership of the property was held by Rev. Kennedy and The New Beginning Missionary Baptist Church.
As to not be nuisance or cause any more pain to the townsfolk of Laurens, Heckler and his crew began filming Burden in Georgia instead recreating the Echo theatre/Red Neck Shop. He cast Garrett Hedlund to play the role of Mike Burden; Forest Whitaker as Rev. David Kennedy; Andrea Riseborough as Judy; Tom Wilkinson as Tom Griffin and Austin Hébert as Wilkinson’s son, Clint.
There is a gap in time between the events of this story and the actual filming of the movie. I asked Andrew if racism is still alive and well down South or if things have changed somewhat. He explained that he isn’t aware of how strong racism is in Charlottesville currently, but shared with me that when they worked on the fake Redneck Shop/KKK museum, it looked so real that people would stop by to go shopping.
“Now, I’m not saying that they are Klansmen,” says Andrew, “and I’m not saying that they’re even racist just because they went in there to look at some stuff, but I mean it was eye-opening to see people shopping in the store that was that filled with racist and bigoted paraphernalia and t-shirts and stuff like that.”
“You can never turn an enemy into a friend through hate.” – Andrew Heckler
I asked Heckler if these people reacted strangely or were surprised by what they saw.
“They thought it was great,” he says. “Many of them thought it was great until we told them that it was part of a movie set in. And then they would say, ‘Well we knew that!” but I wasn’t quite sure how many did know that.”
“Unfortunately [racism] is now more relevant than ever, but the simple truth is that we have become more polarized than ever before. We’re labeling society now. We just can call people names and feel better about ourselves. It takes work, it takes effort, it takes perseverance to look at your enemies or look at people you don’t agree with. Listen to them and try to change them or else, maybe even you get changed.”
Knowing that Heckler is an actor as well, I asked him if he played a cameo role in the film. He tells me that he hadn’t planned on it, but on the second day of filming, he had hired a bit actor to play the part of a lawyer which would require a lot from Garret.
“So Garret and I were rehearsing it together and all of sudden I’m looking at him and say, ‘Hey, do you just want me to do this again?’ and he said ‘Yeah, that’d be great.’ and I said ‘Cool.’ And the whole team thought that was hilarious. They put me in hair and makeup and the whole nine yards. I said to them, ‘I’m not going to be on camera. You guys a wasting your time.”
They couldn’t be persuaded, but in the end, he appears as the lawyer in the story, but he doesn’t appear on camera.
“I tell you something that I hadn’t told anyone else. When I first wrote the movie in the year 2000, I was going to play Mike and then I was going to play Clint. But by the time we shot the movie, I was way too old to play either of those guys. I could almost play Tom Griffin.”
Andrew tells me that what he hopes people will take away from watching this movie is the messages that you can never turn an enemy into a friend through hate. “You can only turn an enemy into a friend through love. But the truth is, that it’s hard. And that’s why I made the movie so challenging for the characters and challenging for the audience. In the words of Mike Burden, when he’s talking at the end of the movie and he says, ‘you know, she saw that little bitty hold and she started chipping away and that hole got bigger and bigger and bigger. What I’d love everybody to take away from this movie is, let’s start looking for the little hole again in each other. We can start chipping away at it and maybe that hole gets bigger and bigger and bigger until we start loving each other again.”
Today, the Echo theatre is sits empty, but soon, it will be reopened as community and diversity center. You can learn more about The Echo Project here.
Burden opens in theaters on Friday, February 28, 2020.
Main Image: IMDB
I write about arts and entertainment in the greater Seattle area.