Review: ‘Burden,’ starring Garrett Hedlund, Forest Whitaker, Andrea Riseborough, Austin Hébert, Usher Raymond and Tom Wilkinson

February 26, 2020

by Carla Hay

Pictured clockwise, from left to right: Taylor Gregory, Andrea Riseborough, Forest Whitaker, Dexter Darden, Crystal Fox and Garrett Hedlund in “Burden” (Photo courtesy of 101 Studios)

“Burden” (2020) 

Directed by Andrew Heckler

Culture Representation: Taking place primarily in the small town of Laurens, South Carolina, this dramatic film has a racially diverse cast of African American and white characters portraying the poor and working-class.

Culture Clash: The movie tells the story about racial tensions and hate crimes that get worse when local Ku Klux Klansmen open a KKK shop/museum in the town, and one of the KKK members becomes a former racist.

Culture Audience: “Burden” will appeal primarily to people who like to see dramatic retellings of stories about people involved with civil rights and fighting racism.

Garrett Hedlund and Tom Wilkinson in “Burden” (Photo courtesy of 101 Studios)

There’s been a mini-trend of “based on a true story” feature films about white racists who change their bigoted ways of thinking, by having unlikely friendships with black people. In the movie, one black person in particular makes the difference in reforming the white racist. We saw this same premise in 2018’s Oscar-winning “Green Book,” 2019’s “The Best of Enemies” and now in 2020’s “Burden.”

Written and directed by Andrew Heckler (his first feature-length film), “Burden” won’t be nominated for any Oscars, but it’s a solid film that has a top-notch cast, even though the movie can veer into well-worn clichés. The movie’s timeless message is more important than the recycled way that much of the movie was filmed.

Taking place in the small town of Laurens, South Carolina, in the mid-to-late 1990s, the story is told mainly from the perspective of the title character, Mike Burden (played by Garrett Hedlund), a self-described “redneck” troublemaker who was orphaned at an early age. The movie begins in the spring of 1996, when Mike (who’s in his 20s) is making his living at a repo company, which is not-so-subtly called Plantation Repossession. He also has a long history of being a criminal. Most of his antisocial behavior consists of violent hate crimes, because he’s a longtime member of the Ku Klux Klan and has risen to the title of Grand Dragon.

Mike has a mentor/father figure in local Klan leader Tom Griffin (played by Tom Wilkinson), who is grooming Mike to be his successor. Mike is such a part of Tom’s family that he’s become like a brother to Tom’s son Clint (played by Austin Hébert), who works with Mike at Plantation Repossession. Tom’s wife Hazel (played by Tess Harper) is also a white supremacist who’s proud to have her family in the KKK.

Tom, Mike and other local Klansman have opened up a storefront in town called the Redneck Shop and KKK Museum, despite objections from many of the citizens in Laurens and beyond. One of the most vocal protestors is Rev. David Kennedy (played by Forest Whitaker), the leader of the New Beginnings Missionary Baptist Church. Rev. Kennedy is a devoted family man to his wife Janice (played by Crystal Fox) and teenage son Kelvin (played by Dexter Darden).

Meanwhile, the movie shows two other people who eventually play a role in Mike Burden’s transformation. One is a single mother named Judy (played by Andrea Riseborough), who first meets Mike when he and Clint come over to her house to repossess items from her live-in boyfriend, who’s an unemployed former NASCAR driver and a heavy drinker. The other person is Mike’s former schoolmate Clarence Brooks (played by Usher Raymond, also known as Grammy-winning singer Usher), who encounters Mike and Clint when they go over to Clarence’s house to repossess his television.

Even though Clarence tells them his sob story about being laid off due to company cutbacks and asks the repo men to give him a break, Mike and Clint are unmoved. Clarence tries to appeal to Mike’s memories of when they were friends as young kids, but Mike somewhat smugly tells Clarence that he can’t make an exception for him or else he and Clint will lose their jobs. While they’re far enough away so Clarence can’t hear them, Clint and Mike make a racist comment about Clarence being on welfare.

The next time Mike and Judy see each other, she’s at the racetrack with her elementary-school-aged son Franklin (played by Taylor Gregory). Mike and Judy lock eyes in the way that people do in movies when you know that they’re going to fall in love. Even though Judy has broken up with her deadbeat boyfriend, she’s somewhat reluctant to date Mike because she knows about his bad reputation. But Mike is very charming and polite to her and Franklin, so eventually she gives in, and they start dating and fall in love.

Before Mike goes though his transformation, much of the story shows the dichotomy of his personality. One the one hand, he’s a hard-working employee and a romantic boyfriend to Judy. On the other hand, he participates in vicious crimes against people who aren’t white or Christian. He and his KKK cronies regularly beat up black people. And they’re the kind of racists who, when they’re driving in a truck and see a black girl walking down a deserted road by herself, they urinate on her and laugh as they pass by.

Mike’s mentor Tom thinks so highly of him that he tells everyone at a local KKK chapter meeting that he’s signing over the store/museum deed to Mike. What Mike does with that real-estate deed after he leaves the Klan becomes the center of a lawsuit that’s depicted in the last third of the film.

But before that happens, Judy makes it clear that she despises that Mike is in the KKK, and she starts spending more time working with Rev. Kennedy and the other people in his congregation who want to shut down the Redneck Shop and KKK Museum. She eventually helps Mike see the error of his ways, and he leaves the Klan.

But there are consequences, as Mike becomes the target of his former KKK comrades’ hatred. He loses his job and eventually his home. He gets beaten up by his former Klan buddies. Mike eventually turns to Rev. Kennedy for help.

Rev. Kennedy offers Mike, Judy and Franklin a place to stay at his home, which is an offer that his wife Janice objects to at first because she doesn’t want her family to be put in danger. The reverend’s son Kelvin is also upset by letting Mike and his new family into the Kennedy home and what it could mean for the Kennedy family. The danger is very real, since Clarence gets beaten up by KKK members because of Clarence’s association with Mike.

As the story unfolds, there are scenes that predictably happen. Judy’s son Franklin and Clarence’s son Duane (played by Devin Bright) become friends in a déjà vu of Mike and Clarence’s childhood friendship. The controversy over the KKK museum gets national attention, bringing Jesse Jackson (played by an actor) to town for one of the protests. Mike’s baptism (by Rev. Kennedy, of course), which takes place at a lake, shows a reformed Mike emerging from the water in slow-motion. It’s filmed with the kind of adoration that’s usually reserved for “miracle” scenes.

“Burden” sometimes gets hokey, but the good intentions outweigh the sometimes overly sentimental direction. The movie doesn’t sugarcoat that turning around a violent bigot’s life can be complicated, messy and dangerous. But the movie shows that things can improve for people who used to be enemies of each other if they have enough compassion, knowledge and resources to help people change for the better.

The former location of the Redneck Shop and KKK Museum has now been renamed the Echo Theater. According to a press release from 101 Studios (the U.S. distributor for “Burden”), 101 Studios and the New Baptist Missionary Church “are partnering to rebuild the space so that it becomes a center of positivity for the first time in its history. National and local partners, such as Lowe’s, are working with 101 Studios and the New Baptist Missionary Church to contribute supplies and materials to the renovation efforts.”

101 Studios will release “Burden” in select U.S. cinemas on February 28, 2020. 

Review: ‘A Fall From Grace,’ starring Crystal Fox, Phylicia Rashad, Bresha Webb, Mehcad Brooks and Cicely Tyson

January 17, 2020

by Carla Hay

Donovan Christie Jr., Tyler Perry, Bresha Webb and Crystal Fox in "A Fall From Grace"
Donovan Christie Jr., Tyler Perry, Bresha Webb and Crystal Fox in “A Fall From Grace” (Photo by Charles Bergmann/Netflix)

“A Fall From Grace”

Directed by Tyler Perry

Culture Representation: Set in the fictional American city of Holloway, “A Fall From Grace” has predominantly black middle-class characters who are connected in some way to a murder mystery case.

Culture Clash: The characters have conflicts over the guilt or innocence of a woman accused of murder.

Culture Audience: “A Fall From Grace” will appeal primarily to fans of Tyler Perry and low-budget, melodramatic “women in peril” movies.

Crystal Fox and Mehcad Brooks in “A Fall From Grace” (Photo courtesy of Netflix)

If you’re watching a Tyler Perry drama, here are three things you can expect to happen:

(1) A husband or boyfriend will cheat on his wife or girlfriend.
(2) The woman will find out about the infidelity.
(3) She not only gets mad, she also gets even.

The legal mystery “A Fall From Grace” (written and directed by Perry) falls right in line with this formula, with plenty of melodramatic and implausible moments, as well as a few touches of humor. (“A Fall From Grace” is definitely for mature audiences, since there’s partial nudity, adult language and very bloody violence.) Perry’s dramas overall are much more interesting than his comedies, but there’s such a similarity to the narratives of Perry’s dramas that they’re very much like passing by a car wreck: You know what you’re probably going to see is messy and tragic, but sometimes you’re compelled to take a look anyway.

To his credit, Perry gives a lot of work to black actors and actresses, since his movies and TV shows have predominantly black casts. It’s just too bad that he can’t come up with more original scripts that don’t have the same, tired concept that the central character (who’s usually an African American woman) is stressed-out and unhappy because of a man. She’s either dealing with a lying cheater, or she’s having problems finding a good man who won’t cheat on her, because she was treated badly by a cheater in her previous relationship.

In “A Fall From Grace,” the troubled woman is Grace Waters (played by Crystal Fox), a mid-level bank employee in her 50s who’s confessed to bludgeoning to death her much-younger second husband, Shannon DeLong (played by Mehcad Brooks), who was married to Grace for less than a year. The crime is shocking to people who know Grace, because she has a mild-mannered and passive personality. Grace’s 26-year-old attorney is public defender Jasmine Bryant (played by Bresha Webb), who’s reluctant to take the case because she’s eager to have her first experience going to trial. Her demanding boss Roy (played by Perry) thinks a trial isn’t necessary, since Grace has confessed to first-degree murder and wants to plead guilty.

As Roy explains to Jasmine, he put her on the case because Jasmine is an excellent negotiator of plea bargains, and he’s training her to do what public defenders usually do: make plea deals for almost all of their clients. But there’s another reason why Jasmine doesn’t want to take the case: As she privately tells her loyal and supportive husband, Jordan (played by Matthew Law), who’s a police officer for the city, she’s become disillusioned by representing so many people she thinks are guilty. Jasmine is seriously thinking about leaving her budding law career to start over in a new profession, but Jordan encourages her not to give up so easily.

Because Grace’s case is very high-profile in the local news, Jasmine is also feeling the pressure of getting the right deal for Grace. The maximum penalty for pleading guilty will be life without parole, but Jasmine is hoping that Grace (who has no previous arrest record) will get a plea bargain of 15 years with the possibility of parole. If Grace goes to trial, she risks getting the death penalty if she’s found guilty. Jasmine meets with a disheveled and dejected Grace in jail, and something about their meeting seems “off” to Jasmine—Grace’s only request for the deal is that she’s sent to a prison that’s near where her grandchildren live. Jasmine begins to wonder if Grace is really not guilty and possibly covering up for someone else.

Jasmine’s doubt about Grace’s guilt grows even more when she looks at the crime-scene photos, and sees that the blood patterns don’t match the patterns of someone who’s supposedly lost blood from a blow to the head. She shows the evidence to Roy, who orders her to make a plea deal and not bring the case to trial. Jasmine decides to investigate further anyway, knowing that she could end up getting fired for insubordination.

Jasmine finds herself meeting with one of Grace’s close friends named Sarah (played by Phylicia Rashad), who runs a boarding house for retired women. (Cicely Tyson has a cameo as one of the residents. She’s literally in the movie for less than 10 minutes.) Sarah tells Jasmine that she’s been friends with Grace for about six years.

In a flashback, viewers see Sarah and Grace talking after attending the wedding of Grace’s ex-husband, who left her for his much-younger secretary, whom he ended up marrying. Grace and her ex-husband (who have a married adult son together) had a divorce where Grace was willing to give up their house to him because she wanted to avoid any nasty legal battles. Grace has convinced herself that she’ll never fall in love again, but Sarah encourages her to get out of the house more and start dating again. Sarah suggests that Grace meet new people by going to an upcoming gallery event that will be the opening of a new photo exhibit.

While Grace is at the gallery exhibit, which features Ethiopian tribe photos taken by Shannon DeLong, she is approached by a hunky man who’s about 20 years younger than Grace. He strikes up a conversation with Grace and asks her what she thinks of the photos. Grace says that she’s very impressed with the photos.

She also tells the man that she thinks Shannon is probably an African woman, because the people in the photos look like they trusted the photographer. While they’re talking and as the man openly flirts with her, the gallery owner makes a speech to introduce Shannon DeLong. And lo and behold, to Grace’s surprise (but not to anyone else watching this who could easily guess who this mystery man is), the charming man whom she was talking to is none other than Shannon DeLong.

The next day, Shannon sends Grace some roses and one of his photos. Grace is curious and a little taken aback at his attempts to romance her because she doesn’t think she’s attractive enough for a man as good-looking and young as Shannon is. At first, she plays hard to get, but she eventually agrees to go out on a date with him.

While on the date, she asks him point-blank: “Why me?” Shannon replies, “Shouldn’t the question be, ‘Why not you?'” They end up having a whirlwind, chaste romance (Grace is religious and won’t sleep with him as long as they’re not married) that leads to Shannon proposing, and then they get married.

But how well does Grace really know her new husband? He starts to show a Jekyll-and-Hyde personality that can flip on a moment’s notice. When Grace overhears him talking on the phone to someone she doesn’t know, and she asks him who he’s talking to, he sneers at her in a menacing tone: “Grace, there are two things I don’t like: (1) being checked up on and (2) being questioned.” Grace finds out the hard way how much of a mistake it was to marry Shannon.

Grace catches him in their bedroom having sex with another woman. Grace also gets fired for embezzlement, and she finds out that Shannon committed the crime by stealing her identity. (This isn’t spoiler information, since it’s in the movie’s trailer.)

When they’re alone together, Shannon openly mocks Grace because he’s sure he can get away with what he did. Things get very ugly and bloody, with Grace whacking him repeatedly with a baseball bat, like someone fighting zombies in “The Walking Dead,” and it’s all resulted in Grace facing prison time for Shannon’s murder.

But wait. This wouldn’t be a Tyler Perry movie without something ludicrous about the plot. It turns out that Shannon’s body was never found. (This detail is also revealed in the movie’s trailer.) Presumably, the district attorney felt there was enough blood evidence to suggest that Shannon is dead, but even that’s a stretch of the imagination.

In real life, prosecution of a murder case, even with a confession, rarely happens without a body (or vital body parts, such as a skull or torso), in order for a medical examiner to determine the cause of death. In the rare instances when someone is charged with murder without a body being found, several years have passed after the allegedly murdered person has been declared missing. Perry is assuming that most people watching this movie won’t know all of that, because the point of having a missing body in this murder mystery is to make viewers wonder if Shannon is really dead.

But that opens up a whole other set of questions: Why did Grace confess in the first place if there was no body found? If Shannon isn’t dead, shouldn’t Grace still be in trouble for attempted murder? And who got rid of the body if he’s dead? Viewers won’t necessarily get the answers to these questions during the course of the movie, as Grace changes her mind about pleading guilty, and the case goes to trial.

The courtroom scenes are predictably over-the-top, but at least they’re more realistic than the bumbling cop scenes with Jasmine’s husband Jordan. In one scene, Jordan is handcuffing someone in an arrest on the street, and then when Jordan suddenly gets important information about Grace’s case, he drives off and leaves the suspect (still handcuffed) out on the street. Would it have been so hard to put the suspect in the back of the squad car instead of leaving him out on the street so he could run away? And in another scene that happens in the beginning of the movie, Jordan unsuccessfully tries to prevent a suicidal elderly woman from jumping off the roof of her house. Apparently, this city must be seriously lacking in police officers, since Jordan doesn’t have any other cop to back him up in this emergency scene.

The suicide scene at the beginning of the movie is explained at the end of the movie, which has a twist that’s kind of crazy. But people should know by now that Perry loves to churn out these soapy, pulpy dramas where people can soak up his brand of cheap thrills. Dive right on in, if that’s your thing.

Netflix premiered “A Fall From Grace” on January 17, 2020.

Copyright 2017-2022 Culture Mix