10 Jun 2020


From At The Movies, 7:33 pm on 10 June 2020

Burden tells the story of Mike Burden’s real-life struggle to escape his Ku Klux Klan past. 

It stars Forest Whitaker, Andrea Riseborough and Garrett Hedlund.

Simon Morris: I vaguely remember reading a news snippet about an unusual business venture in South Carolina a few years back. A bunch of white residents had decided to establish what they called a "Redneck Shop and KKK Museum." That was weird enough, but the punchline was that it had recently been inherited by a black Baptist church.

Pretty intriguing, but it's not the angle taken by a film about it called Burden.

With a name like Burden, you'd expect it to come from some old gospel hymn, and refer to the problems faced by the congregation of Laurens, South Carolina.

But it's actually the name of - if not the hero, then certainly the central character of the film.

His name is Mike Burden, and when we meet him he's already a Grand Dragon of racist organisation the Ku Klux Klan.

Given that Mike is in his mid-20s, and working as a humble repo man, it's safe to say that "Grand Dragon" isn't quite as lofty a rank as it sounds.

But he's certainly a long-time Klan member, under the heavy thumb of Tom Griffin - played by Tom Wilkinson with rather more charm than the real-life version, I believe.

Tom Griffin sets up the Klan museum, effectively daring the opposition to take them on. And the Reverend Kennedy - played by Forest Whitaker - accepts that challenge, albeit peacefully.

But it's not the Reverend who initially turns Mike Burden around. He meets and falls in love with a young mother called Judy - played by another Brit, Andrea Riseborough.

Andrea Riseborough is one of those actors you don't recognise until halfway through the movie. Whether she's playing the title character in the shocker Mandy, or Svetlana Stalin in the comedy Death of Stalin, she's a real chameleon.

As she is here as the pencil-thin, tough cookie whose hatred of the Klan forces Mike to take a look at himself.

The story boils down to Burden and the Reverend Kennedy wrestling for Mike's soul, with heavy interference from outside.

But first-time writer-director Andrew Heckler makes some effort to examine why anyone would join the Ku Klux Klan in the first place, and why, 150 years after the Civil War, the Klan should still have such a firm place in the South.

Even four years ago, New Zealanders might have thought that the Klan's legacy was a thing of the dim, unlamented past - like the Nazis or the Flat Earth Society.

Sadly, that's not the case, as the last weeks have shown. In fact, Burden is probably more relevant now than when it was made two years ago.

Astonishingly, the Redneck Shop and KKK Museum lasted years after the events of this movie, though as I say, Burden is more interested in the journey of Mike - played, a bit one-notedly, by Garrett Hedlund.

The heavy lifting of the film is mostly done by the people surrounding him - Forest Whitaker, Andrea Riseborough as Burden's better half, and rap star Usher as his unexpected black childhood buddy.

With so many directions it could have gone in, it's a shame Burden fell under the spell of the noble reverend.

I guess, partly it's because he's the easiest person to put at the centre of the story, and partly because when you're dealing with the Bible Belt of the United States, it seems that's the one choice you're given.

It's God or the Devil, no holds barred, as a preacher in an old western once put it.

I'm sorry we never found what the Baptist Church did with their KKK Museum, but at least in Burden the people waving their Bibles are doing it for the right reasons, I suppose. God knows that's not always the case these days.

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