The Burial review: Jamie Foxx serves up justice

Tommy Lee Jones co-stars in this David vs. Goliath courtroom drama based on a real-life legal battle in the deep South

The Burial review: Jamie Foxx serves up justice
Tommy Lee Jones, Jamie Foxx in The Burial Image: Prime Video

The Jamie Foxx courtroom drama The Burial is inspired by the true story of African American lawyer Willie E. Gary, his funeral director client Jeremiah O’Keefe, and the seminal 1995 lawsuit they filed against the vast Canadian corporation The Loewen Group. The movie, much like the 1999 New Yorker article that brought the story to the attention of co-writer Doug Wright and director Maggie Betts (Novitiate), is a classic David vs. Goliath tale. And like many such stories, its big finale is preordained from the first frame. However, Betts manages to extract a lot of drama from forgone conclusions, along with the movie’s more salient notions about history, justice, race, gender, and our family legacies.

The Burial is dramatic yet also funny. It works because it isn’t afraid to be “inspired by” the story’s actual people and isn’t just content to retell the events of this little-known but highly consequential civil court case. Gary—who is easy to find on YouTube—is often as funny as Jamie Foxx, who plays him with equal panache. Gary fancied brightly colored suits and gold-framed glasses made from actual gold, and he owned a private jet called Wings of Justice. Not long after attorneys were allowed to advertise their services on broadcast media, Gary made commercials flaunting his wealth, and he was even featured on an episode of Lifestyles Of The Rich And Famous. In real life and as energetically played by Foxx, Gary was part litigator and part preacher; his opening and closing remarks felt like a sermon on the mount for downtrodden Black clients as he railed against the negligence of mostly giant corporations. Those who have never heard of him might call him Johnny Cochranesque with a touch of Jesse Jackson.

O’Keefe (Tommy Lee Jones) is the patriarch in a long line of O’Keefes who built the family legacy on a funeral home business in Jackson, Mississippi, that dates back to the Civil War. As the industry consolidated, putting pressure on traditional family-owned funeral homes, O’Keefe decided to sell the business to The Loewen Group. The excellent character actor Bill Camp plays company chairman Raymond Loewen, and he’s perfect in a role that requires a villain as dastardly as the real guy. Because after O’Keefe agrees to sell a portion of his business to Loewen, the corporate overlord refuses to sign the deal and O’Keefe sues him. Nevertheless, O’Keefe signed, so his case looks unwinnable.

O’Keefe’s council consists of his long-time attorney, Mike Allred (Alan Ruck), a good old boy who has never worked with Black attorneys, and a young Black lawyer, Hal Dockins, played by Mamoudou Athie (the voice of Wade in Elemental). Hal is the one who recommends Willie and when O’Keefe goes to see Gary deliver a closing statement in an unrelated case as a surreptitious audition, it’s so masterful (and masterfully played by Foxx) that we’d have hired Willie Gary, too.

Opposing council is anchored by Mame Downes (Jurnee Smollett), a smart, young, African American Harvard grad nicknamed The Python. It’s a sobriquet as corny and unnecessary as Jurnee Smollett is formidable in the role. Hiring an African American like Downes is the defendant’s direct response to O’Keefe hiring a Black lawyer from Florida, which cleverly introduces both gender and race issues. The business practices of The Loewen Group are racist as well as unethical, which Downes wrestles with as a woman, a person of color, and an outstanding lawyer, while Gary’s preconceived notions about his client and the Mississippi courts are called into question as well. All of this is what The Burial is really about, and it leaves you feeling pretty good about most of humanity and the possibilities for justice from our justice system, especially when you’ve got a good lawyer.

The Burial – Official Trailer | Prime Video

Since the drama in The Burial isn’t found in the question of “will they win,” but rather in the relationships forged by these disparate characters from different worlds, the satisfaction comes mostly from human interactions. When, at a low point in the case, Gary brings Jeremiah to meet his proud mother, and they share their hopes for their families and their legacies, we know that at a human scale, they are working on the same endeavor, whatever the outcome of the case.

While The Burial is a terrific introduction to the style, cleverness, and tenacity of Willie E. Gary, he’s an extraordinary figure who should be the subject of a full blown biopic. He’s presently 76 years old, still practicing and winning, including one of the most significant tobacco cases in history (which was overturned on appeal). If there’s any justice, the elder Willie Gary—resplendent in a $10,000 suit and equally valuable smarts—should play himself.

The Burial opens in theaters October 6 and streams on Prime Video October 13

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