A not so funny thing happened on the way to and through Oscar So White. Actually, it happened before then. It’s been going on for as long as I’ve been an adult moviegoer. We lost our collective ability to talk about race in any meaningful way.
The second movie review I ever wrote was about an innocuous comedy called Soul Man, in which C. Thomas Howell played an aspiring law student who wore black-face to qualify for an affirmative action scholarship. His African-American professor suggested his experience might have been valuable in giving him a taste of what it was like to be Black, to which the humbled and woke — yeah, I know that wasn’t an adjective in 1986 — student vehemently insisted that passing wasn’t the same as being Black because he could take off the mask at any time and go back to being White.
I look back on that review now, and I can see my White, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant, Liberal teenage self tying myself in knots trying to prove how seriously I took issues of race by how demanding I was of movies that dared to depict it. How dare this movie address race and treat it in any but the most narrowly proscribed ways?
Fast-forward a few decades and something feels wearily predictable about the conversations surrounding movies where White people have their consciousness raised about racism. These movies are often derisively dismissed as “White People Solve Racism” movies, even when Black characters are agents/influencers of that evolving consciousness. I’m thinking specifically of The Help, The Blind Side, Hidden Figures, Best of Enemies, and Green Book.
I note two telling trends about such movies. They and generally dismissed as being unrealistic or unrepresentative of some sort of deeper, more universal truth about racism, even when they are based on true stories. And they almost always have a lower reputation among critics than among broader audiences who sometimes appear more willing to accept them for what they are rather than ream them for what they ought to be.
Which brings me in a roundabout way to Burden, a film with many admirable qualities but which I largely expect to be reflexively and cynically dismissed for cultural rather than artistic reasons.
Burden is the story of a young man (Garrett Hedlund) who leaves the Ku Klux Klan at the insistence of the woman he loves, is ostracized by friends when he does, and who is eventually treated charitably by the local African-American pastor who organized the community against a KKK museum run by the local white supremacist (Tom Wilkinson).
I use the word “charitably” intentionally, because Burden’s evolution away from racism is slow and non-linear. Consequently, for much of the film, Reverend Kennedy’s (Forest Whitaker) treatment of Burden is best described as kindness and tolerance, exceptional only because its recipient is a White racist.
The gold standard for movies about people leaving the Klan is, of course, Accidental Courtesy, the documentary about Daryl Davis and his attempts to get people to leave the KKK by befriending them. When I interviewed Davis at SXSW in 2016, he surprised me by openly acknowledging that he didn’t think just anyone could emulate his actions and expect the same results. Factors such as age, education, and personal experience all played a factor in his mission. I also recall him answering a query I made by suggesting that not all Klansman would or could respond to his methodology.
In other words, Accidental Courtesy acknowledges complexity in an issue (race) that tends to be oversimplified in narrative features like Burden. Movies about race, much like movies about Christianity or movies about sexual orientation, seem to carry a higher degree of expectation that they be not only true but representative of the Truth. That is a strange, perhaps unrealistic, expectation, since narrative features are more apt to be made about exceptional people or circumstances than about those whose experiences most often conform to that of the average person.
One of the things I appreciated about Burden is that it allowed for some space within the African-American community to disagree with Reverend Kennedy’s approach and actions. It didn’t necessarily contrast “Christian” responses with allegedly non-Christian ones; instead, it wrestled openly with the idea that some decisions are hard because they present choices between relative goods (grace for others vs. protecting the innocent in one’s family or community) or the lesser of two evils (indirectly supporting racism or letting relatively innocent children of racists suffer).
Is that enough to recommend the movie? For me, yes. Barely. I acknowledge that movies like this one often leave me with questions about their target audience. People like Burden strike me as being unlikely to watch Burden. People who like Burden often leave me wondering if they ever met anyone like the protagonist in real life or if they just like the idea of Black people bearing the responsibility for changing racism by taking a “love the Sinner” approach to Christianity. But at the very least, Burden recognizes that impossible standard we put on Black Christians, and treats those Christians (Black or White) who emulate the charity of God as the exceptional people they are.