Written by: Christopher Llewellyn Reed | October 12th, 2023
The Burial (Maggie Betts, 2023) 2½ out of 4 stars.
Based on a news article by Jonathan Harr that appeared in the November 1, 1999, edition of The New Yorker, The Burial comes with that veneer of veracity announced in an opening title card reading “inspired by true events.” The key word, as always, is “inspired,” since there should never be any doubt that the imperatives of dramatic storytelling take precedence over actual facts. Nevertheless, some internet searches reveals that the outline of the story is true. That’s good, because it would otherwise be a shame to spoil much of the fun.
And fun it is, thanks to spirited performances from all involved. There’s Mamoudou Athie (Underwater), Bill Camp (News of the World), Jamie Foxx (Project Power), Tommy Lee Jones (Wander), Alan Ruck (Freaky), Jurnee Smolett (Spiderhead), and Amanda Warren (Monsters and Men), among a large ensemble. Director/co-screenwriter Maggie Betts (Novitiate) keeps the narrative moving pluckily along, mixing pathos and comedy in an enjoyable combination. Unfortunately, much of the movie happens in the courtroom, where things fall apart.
These scenes of outlandish behavior and legal overstepping that no judge in their right mind would allow to happen spoil what is otherwise a moving tale of friendship gained, arrogance defeated, and racism overcome. Still, though it’s not hard to guess the final outcome, given the kind of film this appears to be from the start, there are nevertheless some welcome surprises and twists. The end result is a warm, fuzzy feeling, marred only by the nagging thought of how much better it all could have been.
Foxx plays successful personal-injury lawyer Willie Gary, so rich after years of winning cases (hasn’t lost one in 12 years!) that he flies around the country in his personal jet, “Wings of Justice.” Jones plays Jeremiah (aka “Jerry”) O’Keefe, owner of a chain of funeral homes who wants nothing more than to leave behind a lasting legacy for his 13 children and many more grandchildren. Their vastly different worlds collide thanks to the intercession of another lawyer, Hal Dockins (Athie), a younger lawyer working for Jerry who thinks that, in a mostly Black town (they live in southern Mississippi), a jury would respond best to a Black lawyer (which Hal is, too, but without Willie’s trial experience or flair).
Why does Jerry need someone to represent him in court? Because he’s suing the Canadian-based Loewen Group, which has been dragging its feet on signing a contract they agreed to after he visited Vancouver to make a deal. That trip came from the advice of his old lawyer, Mike Allred (Ruck), who is white, entitled, stuffy, and somewhat racist (but hey, at least he admits it). He’s definitely not going to win over a majority Black jury.
Some of the details of the suit are clearer than others, but what it boils down to is that Jerry has gotten into trouble due to his side business in funeral insurance. He needs cash, and so plans to sell off 3 homes to the Loewen Group, a behemoth company looking to grow even larger. Their CEO, Ray Loewen (Camp), pitches his business plan to Jerry as trying to take advantage of the new “Golden Era of Death” as Baby Boomers age into that time of life (it’s 1995, so he’s forward-looking). By dragging his feet on the contract that Jerry signs after the trip, Ray no doubt hopes that the former will go bankrupt, thereby allowing him to snap all the homes.
Thanks to Hal, Willie comes on board, much to Mike’s disgust, and things get rolling. Ray is no dummy, however, hiring a Harvard-trained lawyer to lead his own team, who just happens to also be Black (and a woman): Mame Downes (Smolett). Unlike Willie, Mame knows a thing or two about this kind of law; Willie has so far focused on personal injuries. And so the stage is set for a battle of wills and skills, with a steep learning curve for all.
Along the way, Betts allows for strong scenes about racial reckoning and reconciliation. Impressively, she manages to insert important conversations about our nation’s deeply problematic past without those bits of dialogue feeling forced in anyway. It’s therefore doubly regrettable that the courtroom hijinks go in the opposite direction. We can’t everything, I guess. In the meantime, good enough will have to do.