Filmmaker Andrew Heckler believes that to tell a compelling and believable story, one must uncover the humanity of their subject — no matter how difficult.
That’s why, while researching for his forthcoming film “Burden,” he traveled from New York City to the town of Laurens, South Carolina, to go undercover to research the Klu Klux Klan.
“I spent a day in the Redneck Shop and the KKK Museum and got to know some of the Klansmen,” he told The Christian Post. “I told them I was a white supremacist from Chicago. They were very welcoming; almost like a college trying to recruit an athlete.”
“As much as I vehemently disagree with their rhetoric, I was able to see them and hear who they were without having to cover anything,” Heckler said. “I was able to get perspective. As unpopular as this might sound, when you take off the hood of a Klansman, there’s a person who wasn’t born a Klansman. They were people who were taught this. They were hijacked.”
“We hijack the most vulnerable,” he asserted. “Those who are economically and socially vulnerable are hijacked by these families built on hatred. Any family is better than no family. They don’t realize it’s not truly a family because families are built on love.”
It’s Heckler’s compassionate treatment of his subjects that makes “Burden” stand out from other films that attempt to portray the postwar South. His message is simple: Love, and not hate, has the power to change hearts and minds.
Set in the 1990s, “Burden” tells the story of Mike Burden, an orphan raised within the Ku Klux Klan, who opens the KKK Museum and Redneck Shop. The shop is filled with KKK paraphernalia and racist memorabilia including white-hooded Klan uniforms, a sword used by Klansmen, and photographs of lynchings.
Despite his sordid past, Mike is persuaded to leave the KKK by his girlfriend, Judy. When the Klan seeks him out for vengeance, Reverend Kennedy, the African American pastor of New Beginning Missionary Baptist Church, takes him, his girlfriend, and her son in. Thanks to the love, compassion, and kindness showed to him by those he once loathed, Mike embraces Christianity, repents of his racism, and is baptized. Symbolically, Mike gifts Reverend Kennedy the old theater that once housed the Redneck Shop and KKK Museum.
Incredibly, the film starring Forest Whitaker, Tom Wilkinson, Usher, Garrett Hedlund, Andrea Riseborough and Austin Hebert, is based on a true story. For Heckler, “Burden” is the culmination of a decadeslong passion project.
“When I first heard the story, I was blown away,” Heckler recalled. “The simplicity and beauty of the story of a man who escaped the bigotry and hatred he was raised in by the love of a woman and the faith of a reverend. It’s a story of loving your enemy until he becomes your friend. It’s something we can relate to, whether it’s 1996 or 2020.”
“This is not a political movie,” he stressed. “I wrote the first draft in 1999. It’s not in response to any particular event. It’s a universal story of love conquering hate. I always believed so deeply in the meaning of the story that I never quit on it throughout the years.”
In addition to infiltrating the Klan, Heckler spent time with the real-life Reverend Kennedy, Rev. Clarence Simpson, a deacon in Kennedy’s church, (loosely portrayed in the film by R&B singer Usher), as well as the Burdens.
“I spent a lot of time with the pastor and with Clarence, attending church, cookouts, and getting to know the community,” Heckler said. “I would ask, ‘What happened here? How can we listen to you? Getting out of Hollywood and listening to people who had been through these things was so impactful.”
The filmmaker said he was struck by the compassion, empathy, and love shown by those severely marginalized by the KKK. He recalled how, one day, he and Clarence were riding downtown in his pickup truck when the subject of white supremacists came up.
“Clarence said to me, “I feel sorry for those boys,’” Heckler said. “I said, ‘What?’ He said, ‘Poor, southern, male, black — that’s who they’re supposed to be. Poor, southern, male, white? Ain’t supposed to be. So people treat us worse than they treat them. That’s why I feel sorry for them.’”
“It was an absolutely shocking sentiment and made me realize that it’s so easy to view others from a patronizing perspective and as entirely evil. It’s not true, and it’s not going to change anybody’s heart,” he added.
To be clear: Heckler doesn’t paint the Klansmen in a sympathetic light — nor does he let perpetrators of racial violence off the hook. The systematic hatred carried out by Mike and other members of the KKK is all-too viciously brought to life in “Burden.” With an R rating, it isn’t an “easy movie to watch," Heckler acknowledged.
“It’s a tough story,” he admitted. “It’s not rated G.”
“I wanted to tell an authentic story that lives in the gray area,” he said. “It’s tough to love these characters. It’s tough for an audience to watch it. I don’t try to demonize or glorify anyone. I try to tell the story honestly and from both sides."
But true, lasting change, he says, doesn’t come from viewing others as loathsome; rather, as Reverend Kennedy demonstrates, it comes from living out the Gospel and loving others — no matter how difficult.
“Underneath the tough rating and message, there is a beautiful story here,” Heckler stressed. “It’s not limited. It’s for everyone. This movie is about how hard it is to love others, but yet if you stick with it, the benefits are enormous. It's about how love can help others break free from intolerance and hate."
The life and ministry of Jesus Christ, Heckler pointed out, wasn’t “rated G, either.”
The transformative power of the Gospel is evident in the life and testimony of Mike Burden, who Heckler described as a “completely changed man.”
“I spent quite a bit of time with him, and you wouldn’t even recognize him as the man in the film. Life didn’t deal him a great hand of cards and he did a lot of evil things,” the filmmaker said.
“But Reverend Kennedy treated him with love and compassion, understanding you can’t turn an enemy into a friend through hate. You can only turn an enemy into a friend through love. These are the kinds of faith-based values that are exemplified in the movie and brought to life in a real and honest way.”
“Burden” premiered at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival and took home the Dramatic Audience Award, with Heckler landing an additional nomination for the Grand Jury Prize.
Now, Heckler is hoping the film gives back. 101 Studios, which distributed “Burden,” has promised Reverend Kennedy it will help repair and reopen the theater once known as the KKK Museum. Although currently abandoned and dilapidated, Reverend Kennedy envisions the building will one day be turned into a community center dedicated to tolerance, love, and cultural diversity.
“I really wanted to do something in this movie that would affect these people and Reverend Kennedy and help change the narrative,” Heckler said. “So I was insistent on doing some sort of benefit where proceeds go to the church. We felt like this is a piece of art that can contribute to changing the story down there.”
Supporters can donate to the cause at rehabhate.com and receive a brick in honor of their donation.
“It’s rare you see something physically, tangibly contribute to change, to take a piece of hate and through love, faith, and determination, actually change that place of hate into a place of love,” Heckler said.
From 101 Studios, “Burden” is set for limited national release, in Los Angeles and New York City, on Feb. 28, with plans to expand screenings to other cities.