Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Andrew Heckler
Screenwriter: Andrew Heckler
Cast: Garrett Hedlund, Forest Whitaker, Tom Wilkinson, Andrea Riseborough, Tess Harper, Crystal Fox, Usher
Screened at: Park Ave., NYC, 2/24/20
Opens: February 28, 2020
“You’ve got to be taught to hate and fear/ You’ve got to be taught from year to year
Its got to be drummed in your dear little ear, You’ve got to be carefully taught.”
We learn from these lyrics from “South Pacific” that we are not born with hate. Hate is evoked by the environment, not the genes. The negative emotion may be given birth by your parents, later by your friends and what you see on TV and in the movies. This does not mean that we should not hate Hitler and Ted Bundy and Jeffrey Dahmer. That hatred is rational. To feel this animosity to an entire people because of their skin color or religion is irrational.
Andrew Heckler, who directs and wrote “Burden,” has been heretofore known mostly for his acting. However he contributes an incisive portrait of hatred based closely on a true story (we see some of the actual characters in the epilogue). In this case the focus is on the Ku Klux Klan which, surprisingly, was alive and well as recently as 1996, albeit in one small South Carolina town. Tom Griffin (Tom Wilkinson), the head of the sheeted warriors, had the brilliant idea to invigorate a dump of a one-screen cinema house by converting it into a museum of the Klan, with Confederate flags prominently displayed. One woman involved in the structure might be called a moderate in that she announces that Blacks are welcome as well as Whites because “Blacks also fought and died for the Confederacy.” A shrine to the KKK would seem bad enough but the place is used for headquarters of an actual Klan group, one of its members, Mike Burden (Garrett Hedlund), serving as grand dragon.
Not much is told about Burden’s youth aside from his statement that he once coaxed a deer to come right up to him fearlessly (the animal senses the boy’s friendliness) only to be shot by Burden’s father. Burden is poor, badly educated, orphaned, seeking a family as do so many young gang members, though he finds familial warmth from Tom Griffin, who assures him that he treats the young man as his own son. In fact he is so enamored of Mike that he hands over the deed to the Klan museum, giving title to him upon his death.
Two forces counteract the racist group. One is Judy (Andrea Riseborough), a single mom, who is instrumental in turning around the emotionally unstable Mike. The other is David Kennedy (Forest Whitaker), the local reverend, who active not only in his fire-and-brimstone sermons on Sunday but throughout the week gathering crowds of other Black people including a few Whites, demanding that the Klan museum be destroyed.
Much of the movie is taken up with the gentle and sometimes fiery relationship between Judy, who is actively anti-Klan, and Mike Burden, who treats her as lovingly as he treats the local Black people with contempt and with his fists. In one scene he targets the reverend for assassination with a high-powered rifle, but on further consideration he puts down the weapon (he “lays the burden down” as we hear from a song on the soundtrack) and reconsiders his fury at the African-Americans.
Many of the scenes come across as if the movie were endorsed by the church, given the loving attention that Reverend Kennedy gives to the repenting Klan member, affection that means a lot to Burden after he quits the Klan and is targeted for beatings at Tom Griffin’s order. The reverend’s “chasing hate with love” is not popular with his own family, which recalls the many beatings that the gang members gave to the African-Americans.
Garrett Hedlund’s terrific performance anchors the story, turning the individual into a thoroughly credible action to redeem himself. Many of the scenes, however, are not modulated, the physical actions and obscenity-laced words appearing one after the other. We in the audience are coaxed to consider whether we should treat our enemies with love, as “brothers in Christ” as the reverend notes, or to feel emboldened temporarily by taking vengeance against those who have wronged us.
Save the for cursing, you might almost take this film as a Hallmark Hall of Fame episode, one that could be appreciated by a wide audience as a supplement to a Sunday sermon.
129 minutes. © 2020 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online
Story – B+
Acting – B
Technical – B
Overall – B