#SheWatches Burden 

June 22, 2020


I was initially reluctant to watch Burden, in the midst of the Black Lives Matter protests. Would this movie with its themes of racism and violence in the American South seem a little too unnerving, perhaps even a little too timely? Yet by watching the Robbie Brenner ( Dallas Buyers Club) film I could feel an underlying message shining through….. that message was one of hope.  

I lived in America in 1992, through the LA Riots, which were not just in LA but every major US city as they are today. In Denver we stayed indoors and even then it reached our quiet street with our Vietnamese neighbours having their home damaged and tagged with racial slurs. This was my first taste of the underbelly of the brash and shiny America I’d come to know and love.

This film is based on the true story of Michael Burden, a member of the Ku Klux Klan who had a falling out with his mentor, John Howard, and at the urging of his girlfriend left the organisation. Destitute the couple turned to the Reverend David Kennedy, the African American pastor of New Beginning Missionary Baptist Church for help. The film is set in Laurens, South Carolina in 1996. 

The Film 

Writer, Andrew Heckler, took 20 years to bring this film to fruition. It sometimes must have felt like a burden. But he was so moved by the story of the black preacher and the Klansmen in Laurens he knew that he had to tell the story of their trauma, courage and faith. He had to honour those who had told him their story, opened up their lives and their memories  and felt the need to share this unusual story with the world. 

The film premiered at the Sundance Film Festival and with its themes of love over hate it  won the Sundance’s Audience Award in the U.S. dramatic section. It can be at times brutal and gasp inducing and at others tender and funny. For me it’s ultimately a story about people and how all people have the capacity to change and adapt. 

The Story 

When a museum celebrating the Ku Klux Klan opens in a disused cinema in Laurens, the idealistic Reverend Kennedy, played superbly by Forest Whitaker, resolves to do everything in his power to prevent long -simmering racial tensions from boiling over. But the members of his congregation are shocked when he goes so far as to shelter Mike Burden (Garrett Hedland), a Klansmen whose relationships with both a single-mother ( Andrea Riseborough) and high school friend Clarence ( Usher) force him to re-examine his long held beliefs. 

After Kennedy helps Mike leave his violent past, the Baptist priest finds himself on a collision course with KKK leader, Tom Griffin, putting his own friends and family in danger. The resolute Kennedy bravely pursues a path towards peace, setting aside his own misgivings in the hopes of healing his wounded community. This is a story of compassion and grace rooted in a tender love story and shows how love can flourish under even the most difficult circumstances. 

Central to the movie is the boys meets girl story of Mike and Judy. Judy Harbeson (Andrea Riseborough)  is a poor single Mum, looking after her adorable son, Franklin ( Taylor Gregory). When Mike (Garret Hedlund) comes to repossess their TV she begs Mike to help keep Franklin’s most treasured possession.The attraction between the two is immediate, but Judy is uneasy about his colleagues and their bigotry. Adding to her misgivings is the fact that Franklin’s best friend, Duane ( Devin Bright) is black and Duane’s Dad, Clarence ( Usher) is Mike’s childhood friend. The tensions rise and Mike’s former friends make life so difficult, you wonder if anyone is going to survive this journey. 

The Cast 

Garret Hedlund ( Troy, Friday Night Lights, Mudbound ) musters a convincing physical performance as the damaged and not too bright, Mike. Despite his red neck sensibilities he is likeable, which makes his acts of violence in the movie even more shocking. He has been damaged by circumstance and war and his character initially bonds with those who provide him shelter, a home and a job. What is missing from his life is love. You will soon be able to see the charismatic Garret in Tim Winton’s Dirt Music. 

British actress, Andrea Riseborough ( Brighton Rock, Never Let Me Go) is almost unrecognisable as Judy. She has some striking and emotional moments in the film and her steely eyed yet soft hearted portrayal is pivotal to the film’s believability. 

Forest Whitaker ( Arrival, The Last King of Scotland) is a powerhouse as always, conflicted yet stoic in the belief that he can invoke change with love instead of violence. His sermons rock the rafters and his ability to anchor his congregation despite their misgivings is a highlight of the movie. 

For the filmmakers,  casting the role of Tom Griffin was especially difficult. In the end it was Tom Wilkinson ( The Full Monty, Michael Clayton) who understood the importance of not portraying Tom Griffin as a moustache – twirling villain but as someone who had an insidious influence over both Mike and many other residents of the town. Wilkinson is used to playing characters who exhibit shades of grey and his performance is subtle and believable. 

Add the talents of Tess Harper, Usher and Austin Hebert and this stellar cast is another reason this film is amazing to watch. 

My husband and I both enjoyed this compelling story which may be polarising, but for me was a magnificent movie with an incredible message.These stories are always relevant and the message of love triumphing over hate is one I will always value. Burden is available to rent via the Foxtel Store until July 4, 2020. This true story of compassion and change is a timely film which will remind you that there is always hope in an ever changing world.