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'Burden' dramatizes true story of Klansman and black preacher in Laurens, SC

It took him 20 years to make it, and he thought about giving up a few times.

But Andrew Heckler carried a burden: He was so moved by the story about the black preacher and the Klansman in the small Upstate town of Laurens, by the trauma and courage and faith that manifested there, he knew he had to forge ahead, he said.

He had to honor the people who had helped him, confided in him, opened their lives to him, shared their memories.

Heckler needed to share this unusual story with the world, and he felt compelled to untie a knot of creativity that had tightened within him.

He wrote and rewrote the screenplay. He negotiated with actors, then scrambled to find other actors as time slipped by and commitments pulled people away. He searched for industry support and eventually found it in producer Robbie Brenner at Relativity Studios who, determined to finish the movie, pushed Heckler forward even when the two leads were not yet cast.

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A scene from Andrew Heckler's feature film "Burden." Provided/Mark Hill

Heckler managed to finalize a strong cast that included Forest Whitaker, Tom Wilkinson, Usher, Garrett Hedlund, Andrea Riseborough and Austin Hebert. And in late 2016, he shot the movie “Burden” in Jackson, Ga., over the course of a month.

The result is a feature film released in 2018 that premiered at the Sundance Film Festival and found backing from 101 Studios. It’s scheduled for a limited national release, in Los Angeles and New York City, on Feb. 28, with plans to expand screenings to other cities. And it will be shown at the Terrace Charleston Film Festival, 7:15 p.m. Friday, March 6.

The movie is based on the 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 organization. Destitute, the couple turned to the Rev. David Kennedy, the African American pastor of New Beginning Missionary Baptist Church, for help.

The story is about choosing love over hate, and it elicited a generally positive reaction from invited viewers at a special screening in Greenville on a recent Sunday afternoon.

'People can change'

Alison Moore, a 59-year-old Laurens resident, said she hopes many people will see the movie, especially whites since too many of them don’t fully appreciate the oppression and obstacles their black neighbors continue to cope with.

“The conversation must continue,” she said.

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A confrontation in front of the Redneck Shop between Tom Griffin, a character based on John Howard who is played by Tom Wilkinson in the film "Burden," and the Rev. David Kennedy, played by Forest Whitaker. Provided/Mark Hil

Victor Garlington and his daughter, Victoria Ferguson, said they liked the movie’s theme of transformation and redemption, and its portrayal of the black preacher who “did the godly thing.”

“(The movie) brought out how people can change, no matter how deep they are in it,” Garlington said.

As the credits rolled in the theater, Kennedy received well-wishers, chatting briefly with many and embracing many more.

Heckler was there too, eager to assess reactions from the community most impacted by the events portrayed in his film, and to show his support of Kennedy.

Rev. David Kennedy at screening

The Rev. David Kennedy greets well-wishers at a recent screening of "Burden" in Greenville. (Adam Parker/Staff)

The racial animus conveyed in “Burden” is a consequence of self-hatred and economic insecurity, Heckler offered.

“When there’s nothing else, it makes you feel better to think you’re better than others,” he said.

The next day, Heckler was on Sullivan’s Island visiting family and agreed to sit down over beer and hummus to discuss his debut as a director and the intense one-month experience of shooting the movie in the fall of 2016.

Creative license

“It’s not a documentary,” Heckler said, repeating a defense used again and again with residents of Laurens. Of course, he took some liberties in order to heighten the drama and provide a more satisfying entertainment experience.

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Though he did so with respect for all the people involved, he said. The essence of the story is accurately conveyed; Burden’s redemption is true enough (if a lot messier than what’s portrayed in the movie).

Still, it can be difficult for those — black and white — who had to live with the Redneck Shop in their community, who protested its activities, who were forced to revisit painful memories and a traumatic history, to shrug off the inaccuracies in the movie.

The experiences of the Rev. Clarence Simpson, a deacon in Kennedy’s church, provided the basis for the character Clarence Brooks, played by Usher, but Simpson said he could recognize little of himself in the portrayal. He didn’t lose his television to the repo men, he wasn’t childhood friends with Burden, and he wasn’t nearly set on fire by the Klan.

The climactic baptism scene never really happened. Judy Burden had two children, and it was a daughter, not a son, who figured in Burden’s life. Judy grew up with with the Klan and once was part of it. Burden never lived with Kennedy and his family.

Klansman and Redneck Shop operator John Howard, on whom the character of Tom Griffin was based, was not as violence-prone as his fictional counterpart and far more obsessed with Lost Cause mythology than with inflicting physical harm on black people. Perhaps the biggest discrepancy is the ending: Michael and Judy Burden did not live happily ever after.

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The protest scene in front of the Redneck Shop in the movie "Burden," starring Forest Whitaker. Provided/Mark Hill

But perhaps little of this matters much.

A feature film needs a strong narrative with a clear dramatic arc and purposeful resolution. Deep truths about human nature need to be mined and expressed, and sometimes that means setting aside aspects of an inconvenient or contradictory reality, Heckler said.

All in all, the cast and crew found the experience meaningful, he said.

“We had a hell of a good time making a very hard movie.”

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The baptism scene from "Burden," featuring actors Garrett Hedlund as Mike Burden and Andrea Riseborough as Judy Burden. Provided/Mark Hill

The rough cut was more than three hours long, and many scenes had to be trimmed or removed, including some that featured Wilkinson. First on set each morning, and last to leave at the end of the shooting day was Hedlund, who adopted movements and gestures that conveyed his character’s insecurities and self-disgust.

Some of the scenes were intense, Heckler recalled. The actors had to express racism and hatred, confront one another, fight.

“It was easy to direct those scenes because we were able to create family,” he said. “The actors wanted to be there.”

'About the people'

Heckler first encountered the story of the preacher and the Klansman in a tiny newspaper article 20 years ago, when he lived in New York, and immediately he knew he needed to visit Laurens. He spent about 10 days getting to know Kennedy, members of the church and the Burdens.

Not long after, he was back in Laurens donning a secret identity as a white supremacist. He claimed to be affiliated with a hate group in Colorado, where his father lived, to gain access to the Redneck Shop and its proprietors.

“I spent a day with them, toured the shop,” Heckler recalled. “The most important lesson is that whatever they believe, they were people there. This is not just about good and evil. ... People need to belong somewhere. Any family is better than no family.”

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In this scene from "Burden," Clarence Brooks (center, played by Usher) attempts to prevent a fight between Mike Burden (right, Garrett Hedlund) and the work site foreman. Mark Hill/Provided

Meeting the real people of Laurens made Heckler determined to plumb his characters’ psychology, to tell the story of racial conflict through the weaknesses and vulnerabilities of real people.

Tom Griffin is a racist, to be sure, but he is also losing someone akin to a favorite son. His biological son in the film, Clint, appears to be full of hate, but really abhors violence and mostly just wants his father’s attention and approval. Burden is struggling with divided loyalties and takes his frustrations out on others.

“I never try to make it about the issues,” Heckler said. “I try to make it about the people.”

His next project is a movie about the opioid crisis, he said. The funding is not secured yet, and casting is subject to change, but he does have a few big names attached to the project.

Heckler again will make it about the people.

Contact Adam Parker at aparker@postandcourier.com or 843-937-5902.

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