Florida attorney Willie Gary (Jamie Foxx) is at the top of his game as a famous and wealthy personal injury lawyer. Seventy-five-year-old, funeral director, former Biloxi mayor Jeremiah O’Keefe (Tommy Lee Jones) and his attorney and son’s friend Hal Dockins (Mamoudou Athie) ask Gary to help them sue Ray Loewen (character actor Bill Camp). Dockins believes that Loewen was deliberately dragging his feet on sealing a deal with O’Keefe so O’Keefe would go bankrupt, and Loewen could lower his offer. This courtroom drama follows the evolution of the court case and its players. Since 2004, Doug Wright worked on adapting The New Yorker’s Jonathan Harr’s November 1, 1999 article, and sophomore feature director Maggie Betts came onboard relatively recently.
The Burial (2023) gives itself an uphill battle and wins. Introducing Gary, the protagonist, as a flashy, fast-talking speaker at a Black church, could alienate some viewers since it feels as if he is a prosperity gospel proselytizer, a huckster whose success is predicated on exploitation. In the subsequent scene, Gary is spinning a yarn about his dissolute plaintiff for a jury, and his approach is rousing: forthright and emotional. He is not tricking anyone, but a deft storyteller who can capture his audience’s attention. When the film introduces O’Keefe, he is a humble family man concerned with his legacy. Compared to Gary, O’Keefe seems like an underdog who must navigate larger than life figures to survive, and the film charts each arduous step that he and his legal team must take for him to survive. The judicious use of an extended flashback shows how O’Keefe got in this mess instead of hearing Dockins pitch a tale of woe to Gary, which keeps the movie dynamic and light on its feet.
The Burial is not just a courtroom drama, but a character study about how Gary’s and O’Keefe’s collaboration as attorney and client causes them to trade places and grow individually as people. Once Gary temporarily relocates to Mississippi, Gary becomes the underdog. He has two battles to fight: O’Keefe’s and defending his career. He leaves his comfort zone by practicing an unfamiliar area of law and joining a predominantly white, initially dismissive, legal team. He is risking his reputation and making personal and professional sacrifices for a person who he does not know.
O’Keefe’s narrative follows the opposite trajectory. He appears to be a bad bet: more like the establishment and less like a victim as Gary becomes familiar with O’Keefe’s questionable business practices and professional and social associations. Mike Allred (Succession’s Alan Ruck), O’Keefe’s lifelong friend and attorney, transforms the most as his entitlement erodes, and he begins to question his superiority and expertise. Gary’s entourage of attorneys play a minor role and do not get individuated enough but also defy initial impressions. These successful men are not impenetrable or flawless. They face real stakes and are in jeopardy depending on how the jury rules.
The Burial is also a superb period film that starts in 1995. The needle drops perfectly encapsulate the most popular music of its time, which also embeds an ongoing punchline that will reappear in the denouement. It captures how affluence was admired then distinguishes the moral roots of each character’s wealth. Gary is unabashedly a conspicuous consumer, but hues closer to the self-made man fulfilling the American dream by fighting for underdogs against wealthier opponents. His personalized plane is a point of pride, and his appearance on Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous is proof of his professional expertise.
An office photograph displaying associations with Don King and Presidon’t, i.e. the 45th US President, does not age well. His comfort in humbler locations denote that the audience is supposed to admire his wealth because he has not forgotten where he came from. His unflinching love for and reliance on his designer wardrobe-wearing wife, Gloria (Amanda Warren), also reflects his character. It is an unusual image for a Black woman to be pampered, beloved, and stay at home without being treated like a long-suffering mule. Also, when Gary stated that he does not settle lawsuits, it signals that he is a fighter who is invested in his client’s battles, not just a gun for hire only out for profit regardless of how he characterizes himself.
In contrast, The Burial depicts Loewen as a villain with no redeeming qualities, and unlike Gary, his wealth is generated from exploiting anyone beneath him on the financial ladder. Even though he is from British Columbia, his introductory shots are lathered with red, white, and blue to confuse viewers into thinking that he is American. No one has a kneejerk suspicion of Canadians, even if they are crooked, corporate types, so the film’s obfuscation of his origins is dubious, but forgivable.
Maybe the filmmakers were modeling their tactics after Gary’s legal arguments. Gary fights fair, but he engages in a bit of bait-and-switch. He frames Loewen as culpable based on his business practice’s modus operandi, i.e., showing how Loewen treats poor and Black people. O’Keefe belongs to neither group but gets to benefit from their suffering. Why does O’Keefe get a pass and get to act as if he is part of a spectrum of exploitation without getting accused of similar tactics as Loewen? There is an unspoken, show, don’t tell storytelling that Betts engages in to signal that O’Keefe is invited to the cookout. The dialogue is innocuous, and at times, characters make explicit reference to O’Keefe standing up against the KKK as a Biloxi mayor, but the key is noticing the acting and camerawork during some scenes. Betts lingers a beat to capture an actor’s reaction to microaggression. This beat is absent when O’Keefe is onscreen versus other characters who do not distinguish the difference between Dockins’ and Gary’s advocacy styles because of the color of their skin. There is an unspoken and biased assumption that Black people are not lawyers, and if they are, they are not intellectuals and are barely being tolerated—a claim often thrown at Thurgood Marshall, the first Black person to serve as Supreme Court Justice. This discomfort is absent in O’Keefe’s scenes.
The Burial also devotes time to highlighting intersectional issues when introducing Loewen’s attorney, Harvard Law School grad Mame Downes (Jurnee Smollett). Allred’s and Gary’s team comically stammer at the prospect of facing a woman lawyer as if the existence of such a person is unfathomable. Betts and Wright do not pull any punches and show how Gary and Allred engage in misogynoir by deriding Downes’ tone in court instead of the substance of her arguments. The film spends a considerable amount of time insuring that Downes and her team are not given the same one-dimensional treatment as their client, Loewen, especially when giving viewers a glimpse of the defense team’s war room strategizing. The O.J. Simpson trial and Johnnie Cochran provide a backdrop context to the proceedings. In many ways, this film is a paean to Black professionals not being a monolith and admiring the multitude of ways that Black people came to the bar, practiced, and thrived despite facing insurmountable odds.
Other than a little profanity, The Burial is the kind of movie that you can watch with your whole family. It is an old-fashioned, unlikely David and Goliath, suspenseful movie with solid, winning performances, and it is a shame that it will not be playing on big screens in theaters throughout the country. Normally films mess up trials, but Wright’s and Betts’ representation was accurate aside from the speed of the proceedings.
The Burial is now streaming on Prime Video. Watch the trailer here.
Images Courtesy of Prime Video
Rating - 9/10