The supposition that the Ku Klux Klan belongs to a past era is blatantly wrong. Burden, directed by Andrew Heckler, is a film centred around real-life events in South Carolina, revealing that small-town Southern racism and an active Klan were alive and thriving as recently as 1996.
The film opens with what appears to be a heart-warming expression of small-town reinvigoration in the renovation of a defunct theatre in Laurens, South Carolina. How wrong can we be? This is actually an outreach program for the KKK, the venue swiftly reopening as The Redneck KKK Museum.
This propaganda project is the brainchild of local Klan leader Tom Griffin (Tom Wilkinson), with his loyal acolyte Mike Burden (Garrett Hedlund) happily swinging sledgehammers for the cause. Burden was taken in and practically raised by Griffin, so it is no surprise that he has swallowed the Klan’s hard-line racism hook, line and sinker.
Hedlund is totally convincing as Burden, a veteran now employed by Griffin as a repo man. He lurches across the screen, personifying “dirt-poor” in a wardrobe so filthy we wish his clothes would lurch their way straight into a washing-machine.
Just as desperate is Judy Harbeson (Andrea Riseborough), a single and struggling mum with a lovely young son. Attracted to Burden and his ease with her boy, she is equally horrified by the company he keeps.
In blatant contrast to the dirt and ignorance in the white sector of town, the African-American community is led by Dr King-style preacher Reverend Kennedy (Forest Whitaker), whose faith in God, love and forgiveness is not entirely convincing to the younger men and teenagers in his flock, who are the principal targets of Griffin’s thugs.
Reverend Kennedy organises a series of protests against the Redneck Museum and, as the community reaches boiling point, Griffin sends Burden up onto the roof with a rifle and an order to shoot the preacher. Fortunately, influenced by his new girlfriend’s more enlightened views, he falters, resigns from the Klan and rejects his family.
Griffin does not take this well. The old man fires Burden, repossesses his car and has him beaten, evicted and deprived of any job prospects with white businesses in town. Within 24 hours, the small family is homeless, penniless and learning a new definition of desperation. Out of a sense of Christian charity, Reverend Kennedy takes them in, much to the horror of his own family.
While this may feel far-fetched, the story is anchored in real-life events that occurred in South Carolina in 1996. The cast are all strong, but the film feels a little unsure of its place, wobbling between the retelling of history and a cinematic drama.
Regardless, the release of a film that speaks of the power of love and the possibility of redemption from hate-mongering is relevant and timely. It leaves audiences wondering, how long until our world can look on films like this as moments in history rather than lessons we still need to learn?
Burden is available to rent via Foxtel Store.