In 1995, Jeremiah O'Keefe (Tommy Lee Jones) celebrated his 75th birthday as the head of a 100 year old family funeral parlor business that was the largest in Biloxi, Mississippi. He intended to hand it all down to the extensive family that was with him that day, but he’d circumvented state laws by borrowing money from his own insurance company, endangering the whole business. His lawyer, Mike Allred (Alan Ruck), cooked up a deal with Canadian giant Loewen to buy part of it, but when it looked like they were attempting to wait him out through bankruptcy, a young black lawyer, Hal Dockins (Mamoudou Athie, "Jurassic World Dominion," "Elemental"), connects him with Willie Gary (Jamie Foxx), a flashy personal injury lawyer who’s never lost a case, and fireworks ensue in “The Burial.”
Laura's Review: B-
For her sophomore feature, cowriter (with Doug Wright, "Quills")/director Maggie Betts ("Novitiate”) has put together a great ensemble who deliver the goods despite a slippery script which fluffs over such legal questions as why an individual was granted hundreds of millions of dollars because the company he sued had cheated a poor black community in a completely different deal he had nothing to do with, let alone go into just how culpable he was cheating his insurance clients. Instead, “The Burial” is about crossing racial lines for the public good and giving Jamie Foxx a role he can chew on and yet its best element just might be Athie in a breakout role as the quiet legal digger behind the star power.
“The Burial” even begins with one of its many non essential side trips, Willy, for reasons never explained, preaching at the Calvary of Love Baptist Church in his home town of Indiantown, FL. Once Jerry’s problem is laid out, he travels to Canada with Mike and Hal and meets billionaire Ray Loewen (Bill Camp) on his yacht. Months later, as Jerry sinks deeper into debt, the decision is made to sue, but Hal, knowing the court will likely have a black judge and majority jury is unnerved by the white privilege wafting off of Allred.
It takes some convincing to bring Willy on board, the man having never taken on a white client or contract law. Willy also thinks the stakes are too low for him to bother with until Hal points out Loewen’s industry dominance and vast wealth. Willy’s first move is to overrule Mike, rescinding his $8 million settlement offer with one for $100 million, a figure which makes Ray laugh. Ray’s team also figures out Hal’s legal council strategy and unnerves the underdogs by hiring Mame Downes (Jurnee Smollett), a former Supreme Court clerk who graduated at the top of her class at Harvard.
While the film is mainly a courtroom drama, it meanders all over the place, making time to sketch in both Jerry and Willie’s marriages (to Pamela Reed’s Annette and Amanda Warren’s Gloria respectively, both notable), unmarked slave cemeteries and the O.J. trial, Johnny Cochran being a personal hero of Willy’s. It even meanders during the trial, each side’s attempt at character building and assassination seeming to veer far off the point. But while the point of the trial is corporate malfeasance, the actual point of everything is racial injustice, highlighted in one scene where Jerry asks Willy why he became a lawyer.
In his second great performance of the year (the first being in “They Cloned Tyrone”), Jamie Foxx completely disappears into the expensive suits Willy wears, his confidence winning, never smug. That makes his reaction to his major mid-trial error all the more believable, his character humbled, especially given the growing and very real friendship between himself and his client. Tommy Lee Jones helps us forget the incontinent truths which placed Jerry in the situation he’s in in the first place, projecting nothing but decency and respect for all (he and Reed have a wonderful wordless scene together while written settlement negotiations are being passed around a conference table). Warren is an inviting livewire, her character reveling in her wealth without forgetting her roots and Smollett is a steely adversary for Willy yet allows the person underneath to shine through. But for my money, Mamoudou Athie is this film’s MVP, his character the target of much of the film’s overt racism exhibiting grace under fire and perseverance against incredible odds.
Robin's Review: B-
Jeremiah O’Keefe (Tommy Lee Jones) owns a small chain of funeral homes in Mississippi and wants to ensure his family’s financial legacy. He makes a handshake deal with a national chain, the Loewen Group, to sell off three of his homes. But it is a shakedown deal and Jerry needs legal help in “The Burial.”
“Inspired by real events” is the caveat at the beginning of “The Burial” and it is a warning, to me, that the story that is about to unfold will take liberalities with the events and its colorful characters. The story begins with the introduction of Willie E. Gary (Jamie Foxx), a successful litigation lawyer. He proves right away that he goes for the win.
Jerry realizes that he has been had by the owner, Ray Lowen (Bill Camp), of the national funeral home conglomeration bent on putting O’Keefe and his small chain, and his legacy to his huge family, in danger. Willie Gary is proposed as a winning lawyer who can help Jeremiah. Mike Alredd (Alan Ruckman), his lawyer, is against the flamboyant outsider taking over the breach of contract case.
This sets the stage for a story that checks off all the boxes and delivers some humor to the David versus Goliath proceedings. You do not have to make much of a stretch to know how this is going to play out and who is going to win in the end, but you can find out for yourself.
The pleasure in watching this routine tale of litigation is the acting talent of its two stars. The Oscar-winners play well off each other and both revel in their roles, Supporting acting, though cast with veteran thesps, are two-dimensional at best, with one exception: Mamoudou Athie as Jerry’s young lawyer, Hal Dockins, who proves to hold the winning card for his boss. The rest are fine but not given much to flesh out
It does go where it is going without wasting our time and tells a decent true story where the underdog is not in the end.
Amazon Studios opens “The Burial” in select theaters on 10/6/23. It begins streaming on Prime on 10/13/23.