The Ku Klux Klan’s first “purification” of American society and ridding the world of African Americans lasted from about 1865-1871 when the movement became suppressed. Then in 1915, Hollywood and D.W. Griffith presented the silent film, The Birth of a Nation which introduced many to the world of the white robes of the KKK. It coincided with what was known as the Second Klan. It is said that the Second Klan dissolved in 1944 but then a Third Klan rose up in power two years later.
This weekend, Hollywood presents another movie about the KKK with a story that take place a little over 20 years ago. Written and directed by Andrew Heckler, Burden is surprising as it is sobering. It’s a story about faith, family, friendship, hate and forgiveness. It’s a true story that is stranger than fiction but one that ends with hope.
As I was watching the screener for Burden, I thought that perhaps I had received the wrong movie to review. Taking place during 1996, the first ten minutes of the film shows a close-knit, southern family performing demo work on a building that clearly means something to Tom Griffin (Tom Wilkinson) the patriarch of the family. They work hard, laugh hard and celebrate with food. This is big project. Then it is revealed that this family and friends are working on remodeling a vacant movie theater house by turning it into America’s first (and hopefully last) Redneck Shop and Ku Klux Klan museum.
The family consists of Griffin’s wife Hazel (Tess Harper), son Clint (Austin Hébert) and “adopted” son, Mike Burden (Garrett Hedlund). Mike was basically orphaned at a young age when the Griffins took him under their wings and exposed his little mind with the lies of white supremacy. However, we are spared most of this backstory.
Mike and Clint spend their days repossessing various items (such as stereos and TVs) and their nights standing in the woods wrapped in white robes with hoods. It’s ugly, but it’s what they know. Then, the story begins the change.
While repossessing a television set from one home, Mike meets Judy (Andrea Riseborough) a single mother. He is smitten. This new romance is about as far away from the typical Hollywood story you can find. Instead of getting dressed up and going out to dinner and a show, a night at the race track eating hot dogs in the pits will have to do. This is life in a dying little town.
Their relationship is a happy one until Judy discovers that Mike is involved in the Klan. Given her own bad memories of her father’s involvement in the Klan, she draws a line in the sand telling Mike that he needs to choose her or the white hoods. He doesn’t understand what why she is so upset and tries to convince her that his Klan life won’t interfere with theirs. Mike tries to live life in both worlds, but it doesn’t work out so well.
Meanwhile, Reverend Kennedy (Forest Whitaker) has discovered Griffin’s new plan for the old theater and begins to stage peaceful protests against the Griffin family with members of his congregation. His wife Janice (Crystal Fox) of course is supportive but his son Kelvin (Dexter Darden) struggles with wanting to take “an eye for an eye.” The good pastors explains how that verse is from the Old Testament and explains Jesus would not respond that way to the situation. But things get even tenser for the family when they find out that he has created a friendship with the now former grand dragon of the KKK.
Burden is a powerful film that doesn’t shy away from using realistic language and the “N word” nor does it sugarcoat just how difficult it is for Mike to take a stand against racism in a small town. There are punishments for those who walk away from the Klan. Not only that, but Mike has to deal with his own hatred and figure out where it comes from.
Hedlund presents his interpretation of Mike as one with a bunch of body quirks which gives off the notion that he could go off at any moment. For that matter, Riseborough’s portrayal of Judy is kind, but a little rough around the edges. In fact, it’s often that the Griffin family are presented as a respectable family that are community-minded. Burden is story about good vs evil, but it’s not overly decorated with character clichés.
I would recommend this movie for families with older children as it is rated R. Burden is not a faith-based movie, at least not in the usual sense, but it is realistic. Even with the KKK’s twisted view of the Bible, it is over-shadowed by a real gospel and it is this gospel that presents a message of hope. However, with this week’s news that the House has finally passed legislation making lynching a federal crime, it is clear that we still have a long way to go.
Main Image: 101 Studios
I write about arts and entertainment in the greater Seattle area.