Cinema history is littered with good films that struggled to find their audience. There’s as many reasons as there are movies, some eventually make it and others sink without trace. For Andrew Heckler’s debut, Burden, the omens were good. It won the Audience Award in the dramatic category at Sundance, earned a five minute standing ovation and other notable movies – Blindspotting, Sorry To Bother You and RBG – all sold at the festival. But this was Sundance 2018, when neither Netflix nor Amazon were on a buying spree and, when the title didn’t sell in that short window after its premiere, things stalled.
It’s taken a new distribution company to unblock the log jam and Burden at last makes its way onto digital in the UK this week. And, given its story, it seems not just to have found its way onto screens, but found its time as well. A fact-based drama about former KKK member Mike Burden (Garrett Hedlund), it traces his racist activities in a small South Carolina town and his turning away from the attitudes that dominated his life. His main reason is Judy (Andrea Riseborough) but he finds an unexpected ally in local Reverend David Kennedy (Forest Whitaker), a civil rights lead and popular pastor, somebody that Burden and his cohorts once intended to assassinate before moving on to other targets.
At a time when attitudes towards race are under the microscope, Burden feels like it was made mere months ago, rather than several years, challenging the behaviour of the Klan as they take the deliberately provocative act of buying the lease to the former – segregated – cinema and turn it into The Redneck Shop And Museum. It becomes the focal point for protests led by Kennedy, confrontations with the town’s black population and, ultimately, the means to break the organisation’s hold over the town, which has spread as far as the local police. Burden’s personal struggle brings the wider conflict down to a personal level, one explained by Kennedy when we first see him, preaching about the film’s central theme, that of fear versus love. He’s a man who really does practice what he preaches because when Burden resigns from the Klan, he loses his home, truck and job: Kennedy takes him into his own home, despite his family’s opposition, and gets him back to work. It’s a huge risk, but demonstrates his faith in the other man, regardless of his reputation.
It’s no disrespect to the events that inspired the film – one that took Heckler 20 years to write and eventually direct – that it treads familiar ground. The idea of a rootless man adopted by right wing extremists being their fiercest advocate and then turning against them was at the core of Skin (which debuted at Toronto, also in 2018). And Hedlund himself starred in 2017’s Mudbound which, while set just after WWII, saw his character confront racist and social attitudes by becoming friends with a local black man and his family. While Whitaker is the biggest name on the cast list, this is very much Hedlund’s film, conflicted, edgy and at times explosive, at a loss to find a way through the turbulence of his loyalties to make the right decisions.
As Mudbound demonstrated, Hedlund can really deliver the goods when presented with the right part and this is totally up his street. But, despite his performance and the radical nature of Burden’s change, we find out sympathies lean towards Kennedy’s family and their astonishment at his compassion for a notorious racist who once tried to kill him. It’s the film’s big weakness, a narrative it can’t do without because it’s at the centre of what Heckler has to say about racism, but it deserves more time and exploration than the film allows.
Drama | Cert: 15 | Signature Entertainment | Digital, 6 July 2020 | Dir. Andrew Heckler | Garrett Hedlund, Forest Whitaker, Andrea Riseborough, Tom Wilkinson, Usher Raymond.