THE STORY – A lawyer helps a funeral home owner save his family business from a corporate behemoth.
THE CAST – Jamie Foxx, Tommy Lee Jones, Jurnee Smollett, Alan Ruck, Mamoudou Athie, Pamela Reed & Bill Camp
THE TEAM – Maggie Betts (Director/Writer) & Doug Wright (Writer)
THE RUNNING TIME – 126 Minutes
When people say that they don’t make them like they used to, the actual truth is usually that they never stopped making them like that; they just stopped making them with so much frequency. They haven’t stopped making crowd-pleasing, feel-good courtroom dramas inspired by true events like Maggie Betts’s “The Burial.” But, while we used to get them with regularity a few times a year, we now maybe get one or two a year. These movies haven’t been as popular with audiences or the industry as they used to be, but that doesn’t mean they’ve stopped entertaining. “The Burial” is as good a courtroom drama as we’ve gotten since the genre’s heyday in the 1980s and ’90s. Still, the film’s sensibility is unique to the here and now, taking its two-decades-old, ripped-from-the-headlines story and finding a meaningful message about America’s past and present within it.
“The Burial” takes place in the early 1990s, when Jeremiah O’Keefe (Tommy Lee Jones) is running the chain of funeral homes in Mississippi that his family founded and his father passed down to him. All Jeremiah wants is to make sure he leaves behind a legacy for his 12 children and their children, but some poor business decisions have left him in dire straits, with regulators knocking on his door. On the advice of his good friend and lawyer Mike Allred (Alan Ruck), he takes a meeting with Ray Loewen (Bill Camp), a Canadian businessman who is looking to expand his network of funeral homes, and signs a contract to sell some of his homes to the Loewen Group. But, when a week turns into a month that turns into several, Jeremiah realizes that Loewen is trying to starve him out so that he’ll sell everything, and decides to sue him for breach of contract. When the suit is filed in a predominantly poor, Black county of Mississippi, Jeremiah takes the advice of young attorney Hal Dockins (Mamoudou Athie) and hires Willie Gary (Jamie Foxx), a flashy personal injury attorney, to be his lead counsel. Gary knows how to work a jury, but he’s not used to taking cases he has even a chance of losing, and when Loewen counters by hiring Mame Downs (Jurnee Smollett), a Black female attorney well-versed in contract law, does this spell doom for Jeremiah’s case and for the legacy he will leave his family?
“The Burial” is pretty standard-issue stuff on the surface, which isn’t surprising given that it’s a true story and most court cases follow the same process. But Betts and co-screenwriter Doug Wright dig a little deeper than your average courtroom drama, delving into the racial dynamics of the case. It’s not just the fact that Jeremiah is Gary’s first white client, and not just the fact that Allred reeks of Southern good ole boy-style casual racism, but also the fact that Loewen may have, in fact, been targeting lower-income minority areas. This revelation, which propels the film into its third act, causes the film to expand beyond its previously small scope and touch on real-world issues that are still relevant today. The screenplay, which up until this point had largely been fun and fast, turns introspective, interrogating the unspoken desires of its main characters and finding new parallels between them. Jeremiah is no stranger to civil rights fights, having blocked the KKK from protesting while he was mayor of this hometown, but he now finds himself fighting on behalf of numerous Black families in addition to his own. Both he and Gary have more riding on this case than they initially thought, giving the film’s last act even higher stakes and deeper impact.
The bulk of the film, though, has a very different kind of energy. Channeling Gary’s courtroom style, “The Burial” is full of quippy one-liners in the script and old-school soul on the soundtrack. It feels welcoming and energetic, like a family cookout. This is mainly due to Foxx’s outsized presence; the actor takes full command of the screen whenever he’s in a scene, and his ebullient energy spills over to the audience. He leans into Gary’s over-the-top performative nature, even when he’s not in the courtroom, in a way that conveys just a little bit of posturing on Gary’s part. Knowing that Gary only represents Black clients in cases he can win, Hal gets Gary to agree to the case by throwing out the possibility of a higher class of clientele, and his meaning is perfectly understood. But, Gary does not tone himself down one bit — with a bigger stage to play on, he is going to give the world the full Willie Gary experience and labors to be “on” at all times. His overexuberance leads to a setback, though, and when called on to be introspective, Foxx delivers, creating a fully-rounded portrait of this man.
Foxx’s big star turn is exactly the kind of performance that would have nabbed him an Oscar nomination in the 80s or 90s when the courtroom drama was in its heyday. He’s hardly the only greatest performance here, though, just the flashiest. Tommy Lee Jones provides the perfect counterbalance to Foxx, his usual taciturn self infused with the warmth and worry of a family man in his twilight years. Likewise, Smollett is a perfect foil, matching Foxx’s grandstanding energy beat for beat. Her charisma is off the charts, and she’s equally at home with Mame’s savage courtroom persona and her looser private self. Camp is deliciously hateful as the contemptuous Loewen, and Athie is stalwart as the young attorney, equal parts idealistic and realistic.
That balance between idealism and realism is, in large part, what makes “The Burial” a triumph of the genre. We all hope that the law will recognize when people take advantage of others and that the law will punish them appropriately. Proving criminal wrongdoing is often an extremely difficult task, though; many cases can take years before even getting to court. It’s also rare to see large corporations be held fully accountable, given how much money they have to settle with. But, the principle of the issue should matter more than the money, and “The Burial” is clear-eyed about both the harm done by the Loewen Group and the good that came from Jeremiah’s suit. It may not have changed the world, but it did change the world for the people directly involved. The film argues that we should all follow in Jeremiah’s footsteps: If we are able to call out injustice, stand strong against outside pressures, and look outside of our circles for help changing the world, then we might be able to make a stand against the giant corporations that make life worse for ordinary Americans.