Burden is a film that is aptly named on three fronts as it shows the burden of hating as well as the burden of asking, receiving and offering grace and love. Lastly, the film is about Mike Burden, (Garrett Hedlund) an orphan raised by white supremacists to become a leader of the local KKK chapter. Rev. David Kennedy ( Academy Award winner Forest Whitaker) pastor of a Black Baptist Church shares Mike’s burden as he seeks to live out the teaching of Jesus by loving members of the Klan who seek to destroy his church, the town of Laurens South Carolina, and even take his life. Both Burden and Kennedy face the burden of going against the wishes of their families, Michael’s for turning away from the Klan, and Rev. Kennedy’s for offering grace and love to a person who has brought such pain, suffering, and humiliation to his family and community.
Based on the true story of an opening in 1996 of the “Redneck Shop and KKK Museum” in Laurens South Carolina, the film is a twenty-year labor of love for writer/director Andrew Heckler. Heckler read a story of the opening of the shop and museum and like most he could not believe that such a shop had opened in the waning days of the twentieth century. The story became even more unfathomable when just over a year later Heckler read another story about the sale of the building to Rev. Kennedy, the pastor of a Black Baptist Church in Laurens, and because the deed prohibited the eviction of the museum as long as the founder was alive, the pastor became the landlord of a shop dedicated to strengthening the notion of white supremacy and membership in the Klan.
Upon reading the second story, Heckler drove to South Carolina and spent time with both the members of the church and black community as well as supporters of the museum. After his time in Laurens, getting to know the people involved, Heckler experienced the humanity of the members of the church and their supporters as well as the supporters of the shop and Klan. While he was not surprised to see the humanity of the former, he was surprised to see that the latter were not beasts, but rather humans who had the capacity to love and care, yet had been taught to hate and live life in anger and fear of others. Following this experience Heckler says he knew he had to make a movie telling the story.
Burden starts out feeling like another cliché film about rednecks in a small southern town. Hedlund’s stilted, downcast performance is initially off-putting as it seems to be a caricature of a young illiterate southern “redneck.” As the film proceeds it is evident that Hedlund is not reflecting a lack of intelligence but rather Mike’s inner turmoil. Similarly, Andrea Riseborough’s performance as Judy, Mike’s girlfriend and inspiration to leave the Klan and his life of racist hate should not be judged by her initial appearance. There is in Riseborough’s performance a determination that reflects the strength and faith of real-life Judy.
Forest Whitaker’s Rev. Kennedy succeeds in reflecting the reluctance that often accompanies righteousness. While Kennedy knows his Lord is calling him to offer love and forgiveness to those who are persecuting him, his family, and his community, he also feels his human instinct to reject this calling. For Kennedy, this also carried personal weight as his great uncle was lynched in Laurens by the Klan (Photo below). Rev. Kennedy’s decision to offer grace and support only makes sense through his faith in the ways of God and life in God’s Kingdom. What initially seemed to be another film empty of anything but stereotypes, Burden ends as a powerfully presented parable of the promise and perils of seeking redemption as well as offering grace and love to those who repent and ask for forgiveness.
Although rated R for language, violence, and depiction of hate crimes, Burden is a powerful faith-film. As it depicts the brokenness of humanity at its ugliest core, Burden contains the ugly language and actions of our brokenness, not in an attempt to be exploitative, but in an effort to be as honest to this particular story and all the similar stories of hate and hate overcome by the love and grace of God. Were the film’s language and violence watered down to make the film more palatable or family-oriented, the experience of conviction, confession, forgiveness, repentance, and redemption would have been significantly less if not lost. Lost also might have been the realization of some audience members of their need to ask for or offer Christ-like love and forgiveness in their life circumstances.
That Burden was a labor of love is appropriate to the themes of confession, grace, and forgiveness being the pathway for redemption. Forgiveness and grace, if offered as Jesus commands, is nothing short of a literal labor of love. The film depicts in no uncertain terms the difficulty of loving others in the way Jesus loves and expects His followers to love and live. Following Jesus and loving one’s enemies means not only standing against the hate of one’s enemies, but perhaps also standing against the anger and resentment of one’s family, friends, and community.
In the conclusion to my conversation with Andrew Heckler I shared with him that the film, particularly the ending reminded me of the vows of Baptism I confirmed for myself as a youth, and as a United Methodist pastor have asked others coming for baptism into the ministry and church of Jesus Christ. Burden depicts the living out of these vows, and the challenges inherent in being a disciple of Jesus.
On behalf of the whole church, I ask you: Do you renounce the spiritual forces of wickedness, reject the evil powers of this world, and repent of your sin? Do you accept the freedom and power God gives you to resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves? Do you confess Jesus Christ as your Savior, put your whole trust in his grace, and promise to serve him as your Lord, in union with the church which Christ has opened to people of all ages, nations, and races?
These are the expectations Christ has for membership in His Church and these are the challenges and actions Mike Burden faced when he sought to repent from a life of hate and accept the love, grace, and redemption from God and those he persecuted. These are also the expectations Christ has for Rev. Kennedy when presented with the opportunity to offer grace and love to those who have and seek to persecute him and his family. At times living by these vows will be a burden for all disciples, yet God supplies faith to follow them, and grace when one stumbles and then repents.
Note: It is appropriate that the film is opening, if only in Los Angeles and New York on the first weekend of Lent, as it is a reminder of the brokenness of all creation and the ability of God’s love and grace, as most evident in the sending of Christ, to offer the hope of transformation.
The Filmmaker is also supporting efforts to turn the Echo Theater into the Echo Project, a multi-cultural community center open to all people for the purpose of personal growth and to celebrate diversity.