The Burial

Director: Maggie Betts
Screenplay: Doug Wright and Maggie Betts (story by Doug Wright; based on The New Yorker article by Jonathan Harr)
Stars: Jamie Foxx (Willie Gary), Tommy Lee Jones (Jeremiah O’Keefe), Jurnee Smollett (Mame Downes), Alan Ruck (Mike Allred), Mamoudou Athie (Hal Dockins), Pamela Reed (Annette O’Keefe), Bill Camp (Ray Loewen), Amanda Warren (Gloria Gary), Dorian Crossmond Missick (Reggie Douglas), Tywayne Wheatt (Al Jones), Lance E. Nichols (Judge Graves)
MPAA Rating: R
Year of Release: 2023
Country: U.S.
The Burial
The Burial

The Burial is a David-and-Goliath story with the addition of David getting help from another giant. Loosely based on a true story that unfolded in Mississippi in the mid-1990s, The Burial’s David is Jeremiah O’Keefe (Tommy Lee Jones), the owner of a family business of funeral homes in Biloxi. He sues the film’s Goliath, the Loewen Funeral Group, which at the time was the world’s second largest funeral home chain, for breach of contract.

And, while that sounds like a fairly dull premise for an entertaining legal drama (“breach of contract?”—seriously?), the film gets much energy from the introduction of its second giant, Willie Gary (Jamie Foxx), a flamboyant personal injury attorney in Florida with an unblemished trial record who O’Keefe hires at the suggestion of one of his lawyers, Hal Dockins (Mamoudou Athie). Dockins recognizes that the case will be tried in a predominantly African American county and would therefore benefit from a black lead counsel who has the kind of style and legal cunning that his current lawyers decidedly lack. Speaking of … the hiring of Gary does not sit well with Mike Allred (Alan Ruck), O’Keefe’s long-time attorney and close friend whose internalization of white Southern patriarchy and subtle, mannerly racism leads him to thoughtlessly refer to every black man with whom he speaks as “son.”

Nevertheless, Gary, who aspires to the limelight success of Johnny Cochran (the O.J. Simpson trial is unfolding in the background throughout) and has already amassed enough wealth to buy a private jet and live a lifestyle of the rich and famous, takes O’Keefe’s case even though it is outside his area of specialization. Loewen’s CEO, Canadian businessman Ray Loewen (Bill Camp), hires his own legal shark, Mame Downes (Jurnee Smollett), a Harvard graduate and proud black woman who is just as skilled in the courtroom as Gary and is arguably more knowledgeable about the subject before the court (as one of Gary’s associates notes, “We got out-blacked and out-womaned all in one go”). This naturally creates a competitive dynamic between the two lawyers, one that is surprisingly dexterous given how simplistic it could have been (or unnecessarily sexual, as a weaker film might have been tempted to indulge).

The Burial is the second feature directed by Maggie Betts, who won the Breakthrough Director Award at Sundance for her religious drama Novitiate (2017). Betts wrote the screenplay with Doug Wright, a Tony- and Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright best known for Quills (which was adapted to film in 2000) and I Am My Own Wife, from a New Yorker article by Jonathan Harr, who wrote the book on which the John Travolta legal thriller A Civil Action (1998) was based. They give The Burial all the necessary ingredients for a reassuring showdown, with O’Keefe representing the decent, family-oriented small-business owner that America loves to hold up as its pinnacle of being, and Loewen representing the soulless, amoral corporate titan whose only care is adding to his already obscene wealth.

The irony, of course, is that O’Keefe is aided by a man who, in many ways, is just as materialistic and money-driven as the film’s villain. However, Gary is played with charisma and energy by Jamie Foxx, and the character is written to accentuate his virtues: a veritable embodiment of the Horatio Alger success story, he emerged from a family of sharecroppers to become one of the country’s most successful attorneys, but without losing his connection with his family (he still regularly visits his mother and his relationship with his wife, played by Pamela Reed, is warm and loving and committed) or his faith (we first see him guest preaching in a small Baptist church). Gary nevertheless has his flaws, the biggest of which is his own ego, which at one point gets in the way of his properly defending O’Keefe and temporarily costs him the lead counsel position.

For all its courtroom dramatics and nods toward the continued centrality of race in both the law and business, The Burial is at its best in the moments that emphasize the growing relationship between O’Keefe and Gary, both of whom are—in dramatically different ways—upstanding men of genuine moral character who, despite their flaws, are trying to do the right thing. Both struggle throughout the case, as O’Keefe is under extreme financial distress (the whole reason he wanted to make a deal with Loewen in the first place), while Gary is having something of an identity crises, with O’Keefe’s case presenting a difficult moral dilemma that is outside his usual sphere of command. He is brash and defiant, but at his core he comes to realize that he is working to right an injustice, which ultimately drives him more than the money. The Burial wants desperately to be a feel-good film about the moral (and financial) victory of the underdogs, the kind that makes you fist-pump the reading of a verdict, and in that sense it doesn’t disappoint. However, it is its characters and their own personal struggles that give the film any lasting weight.

Copyright © 2023 James Kendrick

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Overall Rating: (3)

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