The Civil War ended in 1865. But some are still fighting.
Tom Griffin would probably see himself as an unrepentant Rebel: What he really is, however, is a simple, hateful racist. Instead of wearing a gray or butternut uniform, he drapes himself in hooded sheets. His weapons aren’t muskets and sabres, but hate and fear, gasoline and rope.
Oh, and maybe a little real estate, too.
In 1996, Griffin converts an old theater in downtown Laurens, South Carolina, into the World Famous Redneck KKK Museum. The Confederate flag hangs from its old marquee. Racist shirts adorn the gift shop. For $15, visitors can see what they’d look like in a KKK hood.
“Hey, Reverend,” Tom says, with a wave and a snear toward black minister David Kennedy. “See you at the opening. I’m expecting you to be the first customer.”
Sure enough, Rev. Kennedy plans to be there on opening day—with a passel of protesters. But he’s not out to fight a war. The Sunday after he sees Tom hang that Confederate flag, Kennedy preaches love to his congregation. He’s not out to wage war, but he still talks about their weapons—weapons to fight fear.
“They’re not revenge, they’re not hate,” he says. “They are, and will always be, love.”
Mike Burden thinks he knows something about love, too. You see, Tom Griffin took him in when he was a child without direction and taught him everything he knows. He fed him. Housed him. Gave him a job and gave him a purpose—to don the sheet, light the cross and be a proud member of the KKK. Mike loves Tom like a father.
But when he meets Judy, he discovers a different sort of love. She’s kind and gentle. She’s a good mom to her son, Franklin—whose best friend is black. When Mike introduces her to Tom and he starts cracking racist jokes, she stalks out. She tells Mike later that she doesn’t like Tom and his racism one little bit.
Mike looks at her, imploring. “Tom’s like a father to me,” he says. “These people, they’re like my family.”
And for now, Judy accepts that explanation. But she won’t do it forever. Because in every war, there comes a time where every man must choose a side.
[Note: Spoilers are contained in the following sections.]
Can people change? Really change? Can someone turn his back on the KKK if it’s all he’s ever known? The Rev. Kennedy believes that’s possible—but he knows it’s not easy. “[You] can’t get rid of hate unless you replace it with something else,” the Rev. Kennedy says.
Mike’s got a lot of hate in his heart, and he needs something mighty strong to squeeze it out of there. His love for Judy, and Judy’s love for him, prove to be that potential cleansing agent. Their relationship is hardly perfect (as we’ll see), but the taste of love and family that she gives him proves to be a powerful counterbalance to Tom Griffin’s racism. Judy gives Mike all sorts of reasons to find a better path forward—even if that path is very difficult to follow.
Who helps them through the harshest segments of that path? Why, the Rev. Kennedy, of course. The minister knows exactly who—and what—Mike Burden is. He knows that someone like Mike doesn’t just flip a switch and love black people all of a sudden. Many in his flock, and even some members of his own family, encourage the reverend to walk away from the case, to turn his back on Mike. Once a Klansman, always a Klansman, they say. Instead, he buys Mike, Judy and Franklin a meal at a local buffet. He brings them into his house and allows them to live there for a while. He even finds a way to get Mike a job—not easy under the circumstances.
But change is never possible unless someone wants to change. It takes courage and determination to push through the hard, painful moments that change always requires. Mike’s path to redemption isn’t perfect and it isn’t smooth. But he stumbles forward, step by step.
The Rev. Kennedy’s goodness is rooted in his faith. Without his convictions, Kennedy would have shut the door on Mike forever. “Me, I don’t want that man in our house,” he confesses to his son. “But … if I abandoned him now, I wouldn’t be able to preach no more.”
Mike doesn’t deserve Kennedy’s grace or charity, but Kennedy gives both freely. But the reverend knows that justice is part of the equation, too: You have to stand up to evil, not just buy it dinner. In a ceremony, Kennedy reminds his congregants of the many predominantly African-American churches that have been attacked and/or burned, and he leads protests in front of Tom’s KKK museum.
Kennedy’s willingness to show Mike some unearned charity feels like misplaced grace to many of those around him. (When he tries to rent a hotel room for Mike, Judy and Franklin, the owner turns him down. “I know him as a brother in Christ, Al,” the preacher says. “I know him as a brother in the knights, Reverend,” Al says.) It even causes friction within his own family. Kennedy’s son grows angry, and his wife pushes back against the idea of inviting Mike to stay with them. “I love your heart, and you know I share your faith in God,” she tells him. “But I’m not so sure I share your faith in men.”
While Kennedy’s convictions carry the movie, Tom would also claim to be a man of deep faith: His KKK ceremonies are filled with references to God, misguided though they are. He talks about “God’s will for racial purity” and concludes a rally by saying, “We’re going to fight for the Klan Museum with God on our side and fire in our souls.” (Obviously, the KKK has historically co-opted Christian language and symbols, right down to the crosses its members burn. We see some of them burn here.)
But Mike eventually recognizes the barrenness of Tom’s faith. “God help you, son,” Tom says when Mike announces he’s leaving the Klan. “When was the last time your saw God in these here parts?” Mike demands. Eventually, Mike’s change in attitude culminates in being baptized and offering a contrite confession. We also hear him tell someone this: “If I call you my enemy, I’ll walk through heaven, and I will punch God just to get you. But if I call you my friend, I’ll walk through hell, and I’ll slap the devil for you.”
Mike and Judy start dating shortly after they meet. When Mike gives her his sweatshirt to keep out the cold night air and Judy returns it, the act of taking the sweatshirt off reveals a bit of stomach on each of them. We see the two of them cuddled up on a couch, with a sleeping Franklin beside them both. When Kennedy invites the three to stay at his house, he tries to mollify his angry wife by addressing what he thinks—or what he pretends to be—her concern: That they’re sleeping together out of wedlock under their roof.
Judy wears revealing garb at times. She shows up at Mike’s worksite, and the foreman makes some suggestive remarks about her, which sends Mike into a rage. (A lot of that rage is perhaps centered around the fact that the foreman is African-American.)
Before meeting Judy, Mike and fellow KKK member Jameson work for Tom’s reposession agency—reclaiming TVs and appliances when tennants’ rent hasn’t been paid. One woman greets the pair by the door in her skivvies. “You sure there ain’t nothing I could do to persuade you gentlemen not to take my stereo?” she asks suggestively.
A protest in front of the KKK museum gets out of hand, with several people fighting in the street. Someone kneels on the museum’s rooftop with a rifle, ready to shoot Rev. Kennedy. (In the end, he decides not to.) We hear that Kennedy’s uncle was the victim of a lynching years earlier—a lynching that perhaps Tom had something to do with.
Two people are brutally beaten by the KKK: One of them is doused in gasoline and is nearly set on fire before the attack is halted. Another black man is assaulted in his car, leaving him badly injured. A truck smashes into the KKK museum, forcing its closure for a time. Tom teaches children how to use knives—encouraging them to stab a dummy. His mother later says that tom was telling the boy to “cut dark meat with it.”
A man hits another man in the nose, apparently breaking it and sending blood flying. A NASCAR racer crashes and is rushed to the hospital, his neck in a brace. Mike and his foreman fight on the job.
We hear that Mike was once a paratrooper, and that he broke almost every bone in his body after a jump went awry. He also tells how, as a little boy, his father shot and killed a deer. (In a flashback, we see evidence of that confrontation, including a dead deer.) We hear the story of a beaten dog. The head of a fish is chopped off. People are threatened.
Nearly 40 f-words and about a dozen s-words. We also hear “a–,” “b–ch,” “d–n,” “h—,” f-g” and “p—y.” The word “n—er” is, as you might imagine, used all too frequently. God’s name is paired with “d–n” five times, while Jesus’ name is abused thrice. We hear some crude terms for various body parts, too.
Mike gets seriously drunk a couple of times. The first time, he’s clearly inebriated as he screams and smashes whiskey bottles. The second, he gets into a screaming match.
He, Judy and lots of others drink beer elsewhere. When Judy’s with another guy, she accuses him of being drunk. And when he gets agitated, she suggests it’s whiskey courage. When Rev. Kennedy visits his uncle’s gravesite, he brings a bottle of liquor and pours it on the grave—in honor of the uncle’s birthday, the reverend says.
Mike and others smoke frequently as well.
Perhaps half of the characters we meet in Burden are tied directly or indirectly to the Ku Klux Klan. As such, we hear lots of racial epithets and slurs and see some disgusting acts of prejudice. For instance: A truck full of KKK members drives by a black woman walking home from work when one of the white men apparently urinates on her as they go slowly past. (That foul act is visually referenced on a shirt for sale at the KKK museum as well.) The racial hate we see and hear can feel pervasive. Mike’s own racism is deeply ingrained, so even as he starts to turn his life around, that bitter bigotry often rekindles and gets in his way.
Racism seems pretty inculcated into the community as a whole, by the way. The local police chief stops by the KKK meeting room, and it’s suggested that he’s a fairly frequent visitor. And when Mike quits the Klan, Tom’s sway with the local authorities is sufficient to get him and Judy thrown out of their house (they fell behind in their payments) and blackballed by many local businesses.
The film’s title, Burden, does double duty here. It is, of course, Mike Burden’s last name. But more importantly, it points to the weight that he carries with him: the albatross of racism that hangs around his neck, the millstone of his own failed upbringing and broken soul. And even as he slowly begins to discard those terrible weights, others seem to hop on his back—making the process of change that much harder.
That could describe the experience of watching the movie, too. Burden carries burdens of its own: It’s violent, profane and the bigotry we see and hear can be incredibly difficult to stomach, even in the context of a movie.
But here’s the thing: The heart of this movie is deeply and inescapably Christian.
Burden tells a story of sin and redemption, of confession and salvation. It viscerally shows the power of love—both the natural, powerful love experienced between a man and a woman, as well as the difficult, sacrificial love that the ancient Greeks called agape. This movie delves deeply into the true wages of sin—what it costs the sinner, and what it costs those impacted by his sin—and weighs the roles of justice and mercy in moving on. And it even closes like a by-the-book Christian movie would: With a full-on baptism, where an old life is washed away and a new one begins.
“I’m a man that can’t go back because I don’t want to,” Mike says. “Maybe one day you can forgive me. Hope God can forgive me.”
Paul Asay has been part of the Plugged In staff since 2007, watching and reviewing roughly 15 quintillion movies and television shows. He’s written for a number of other publications, too, including Time, The Washington Post and Christianity Today. The author of several books, Paul loves to find spirituality in unexpected places, including popular entertainment, and he loves all things superhero. His vices include James Bond films, Mountain Dew and terrible B-grade movies. He’s married, has two children and a neurotic dog, runs marathons on occasion and hopes to someday own his own tuxedo. Feel free to follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.