This wobbly but well-intentioned broadside against racism has been sitting on the shelf since it won the Dramatic Audience Award at Sundance 2018. What gives? Could it be that this true tale of 1990s KKK resurgence has nothing to say to the here and now? Not if you live in the real world, where incidents like the white-supremacist Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, have sparked a resurgence of racist attacks from Parkland to El Paso. Just as Spike Lee’s BlackKklansman used an incident from the 1970s to show that the alt-right cry of “America first!” is sadly alive and festering in the Trump era, Burden uses a true story from 1996 to point up a hate movement that is tragically not showing down.
Mike Burden, played by an all-stops-out Garrett Hedlund as a fuse ready to ignite, has been raised on hatred. After a stint in the Army, Burden signs up as a Ku Klux Klan Grand Dragon. He also works as a repo man for South Carolina Klan leader Tom Griffin (a snarling Tom Wilkinson). To this former orphan, Griffin is a father figure who teaches the effectiveness of violence at getting a message across. Propaganda is another method. To that end, Griffin, Burden, and the Klansmen have taken over a movie theater in the small town of Laurens and run it as the Redneck Shop, a KKK museum. The move horrifies the Rev. David Kennedy (Forest Whitaker), a preacher who organizes a protest against this monument to white hoods and photos of black lynchings. When the protest starts to gain heat — in real life, Jesse Jackson joined in — Griffin sends Burden out with a rifle to silence Rev. Kennedy. That the anointed assassin can’t follow through is an epiphany for the young man, whose change-of-heart is sparked by a spiritual awakening and his love for Judy Harbeson (Andrea Riseborough), a dirt-poor, single mother who points to a better way.
The hatemonger’s impossible-but-true redemption is the crux of the film that actor-turned-filmmaker Andrew Heckler instills with a passion that carries him over rough spots as a first-time writer and director. Hedlund does wonders showing us Burden’s hidden resources and the scars he’s still carrying. But there are character transitions missing in Burden’s transformation that might have taken us deeper into his life, as happened in last year’s more forceful Skin, in which Jamie Bell tore into the fact-based role of Bryon Widner, a tattoo artist who inked his skin as a message of hate until a good woman helped him see the light.
Still, Heckler deserves props for not smoothing the edges of this incendiary tale. Indeed, Griffin took violent vengeance against Burden and poisoned the community against him. Even the reverend suffered blowback for offering the reformed racist and his lady love shelter in his own home. Dr. King’s message — “Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that” — is reprised here. The still pertinent question, however simplistically rendered by the film, is: How long will it take to sink in?