In this 2018 Sundance Film Festival premiere, we have the story of young army vet, Mike Burden – A man raised by his family to carry the Ku Klux Klan’s torch under any means necessary. But, just as in any true fairy-tale, Burden falls for a delightfully dysfunctional woman who is down on her luck. The problem for him, of course, is that she views Negros as her equal.
In order for their aspired relationship to continue, he has a life altering decision to make: Stay in the KKK, which he’s been raised to know and fight for, ultimately losing the only girl he’s ever loved – Or leave the Klan behind for said girl, whilst standing with her and for equality.
Heckler’s Burden opens with a scene involving a building demolition, featuring exhausted, yet ecstatic men ready to pounce and break every last wall and window. Progressing through the same sequence, we see the rebuild – A careful persistence and joy in this family’s eyes as they finish building their main stage.
Alas, their work of art isn’t complete until one canvas hangs proudly for its creator, his prodigy, and the rest of the town to see… The Confederate flag. This sets a mood for what’s about to transpire throughout. From the assembled museum of bigotry, to the Sunday night cook outs followed by an all too common, and oddly routine cross burning ritual – Heckler paints the picture of what this group truly wants: The rise of the white race. One would think this was a scene straight out of the 1950’s, but no. In fact, Heckler wastes no time letting us know this is Laurens, South Carolina in 1996.
Griffith (Tom Wilkinson) the god-like father of this KKK chapter in Laurens, is a man whose violent and sadistic behavior actively encourages deprived conduct of his famed disciple, Mike Burden (Garrett Hedlund). Burden, an orphan who Griffith crafts into a mirror-like image of himself, becomes inculcated with the roots and beliefs of segregation while spewing hatred for all blacks and foreigners.
Fighting a battle with a local black rights movement led by Reverend Kennedy (Forest Whitaker), Griffith desperately seeks a win in a world that is evolving and becoming far more inclusive of POC’s (people of color), instead of protecting what he believes is right.
Burden, who is viewed by Griffith as a pawn on his radical racist chess board, works for him as a repo man. Malleable, ignorant, and a puppet who hangs by Griffith’s strings, Burden is in a desperate search to belong to anyone or anything. Relenting any self-power and identity to the desires of his clan superiors, he finds himself habitually committing ignorant acts that are nothing other than horrid hate crimes.
Such racist idiocy include: Driving by with buddies and peeing on an unsuspecting black girl who was walking home because he found it amusing, and beating up an innocent young black man to prove his authority over an arrogant “nigger” who was in his way. His list of transgressions is long, but what we can see throughout the film that this sentiment was taught and not inherent.
During one of his repo runs with Clint (Austin Hebert), Griffith’s son, he meets Judy (Andrea Riseborough) – A single mother in distress struggling to make ends meet while taking care of her son. Her constant disheveled look and bruises convey some sort of intimate struggle that we, as an audience, may not pick up on, but that Burden is intrigued by. Fixated on her at first sight, he sees part of himself in her eyes.
The kind of character that would defend a black woman and apologize on behalf of her white peers, she keeps Reverend Kennedy in high regards while allowing her son to play with whomever regardless of race. It is unclear at what age Burden begins to have distasteful sentiments towards people of color, but we learn through an encounter with Clarence (Usher Raymond III), his childhood best friend, that he must have changed during his army years
The film examines Burden’s internal conflict as he battles between maintaining a relationship with those who welcomed & molded him, and fighting for what he knows to be right.
Though the script was written over a decade ago, it was based on a story that seems too far from current historical recollection – Yet still very poignant as ever today. With this tantalizing piece of visionary art, Heckler manages to complete two tasks: Captivate us with a storyline so down to earth it invokes an empathetic emotional roller-coaster, and encourages us to dig deep within ourselves to explore our own biases.
Reminiscent of David McKenna’s, American History X, Burden teaches its audience that hatred is not within us and that anything which can be taught can also be deconstructed through love, unity & ally ship.
“If we die to go to heaven I’ll fight to get you in, if we die and go to hell, I’d fight to get you out” – Mike Burden.
By Karen Rodriguez