Film & Theater The Arts

Review: The Burial

Ally Henny

One thing about me is that I love a good courtroom drama that is equal parts intrigue and hot mess. The Burial is exactly that. 

Inspired by true eventsThe Burial stars Jamie Foxx as Willie E. Gary, a hot-shot lawyer who established his career by winning lucrative personal injury settlements from large corporations. Gary is hired by Jerry O’Keefe (Tommy Lee Jones) to take on a billion-dollar “death care” conglomerate, Loewen, when the company fails to sign the contract so that they don’t have to honor aspects of the contract that would break their monopoly on the death care industry in the south in the late 1990s. Gary goes head to head with a tough corporate lawyer named Mame Downes (Jurnee Smollett), who threatens to thwart Gary’s hopes of winning the lawsuit.

Jamie Foxx shines as the sharp-dressed, quick-witted Willie E. Gary. He takes a character who could have easily been played as a caricature and gives him depth and humanity. One thing that I’ve always admired about Foxx is his ability to inhabit a character fully. I say “inhabit” and not “embody” because you know that you’re watching Jamie Foxx, but he always takes on his characters in such a way that you believe the person he’s playing just happens to bear a striking resemblance to the actor. Those of us who are connected to the Black church will quickly recognize how Foxx weaves certain conventions of Black sacred rhetoric into his performance. This is something that is caught and not taught, and Foxx does it perfectly.

Jurnee Smollett’s as Mame Downes is a force to be reckoned with. Her charisma threatens to steal every scene she’s in, and her banter with Foxx’s character is a high point in the movie. I would have loved to see more character development for Downes. Although Downes is intended to be Gary’s foil, Smollet manages to make the audience question their allegiance to Foxx’s character and to what we think we know of the case. Smollett makes it nearly impossible for the audience to completely dislike Downes. 

Tommy Lee Jones often plays characters that are large and in charge, but The Burial marks a slight departure from the type of character he often plays. O’Keefe is a man in his so-called “twilight years,” reckoning with his own mistakes and the legacy he hopes to leave his family.  Although O’Keefe is at the center of the story, Jones allows O’Keefe to fade into the background except at key moments. Jones’ restraint makes it easy to root for O’Keefe rather than dismiss him. 

One slightly disappointing aspect of the movie, however, is that it is very much “inspired by” true events and not “based on a true story.” The director, Maggie Betts, admits that she took some liberties with the role of race and racism in the case. (Beware: the previous link has spoilers). This is sad because there were some satisfying racial moments that I hoped had taken place, but alas, they likely did not. 

One aspect of the story that Betts didn’t take liberties with was Loewen’s corruption and the myriad ways that the company took advantage of poor Black folks and used an arm of the Black Church to do it. This might not come as a revelation to anyone alive at the time and connected to the denomination involved, but I was shook. I hope someone does a documentary about the church’s involvement in this scandal.

The only substantive criticism I have of The Burial is that a handful of moments feel as though they were scripted to cater to white people’s collective sensibilities about race. Without giving spoilers (since one of these moments comes at a pivotal point in the film): There is a point where a few of the Black characters make their frustration known about an important, race-related revelation during the trial, and the scene is played as if the Black characters were wrong for raising their concerns. 

It’s obvious that the director was attempting to show some nuance (if not bowing to the pressure to avoid alienating white audiences) with this and similar moments. She should be commended for not handling race in a way that feels like an after-school special. Unfortunately, her attempt at nuance comes at a time in the movie that would have benefitted from a more incisive commentary. The few missteps don’t ruin the movie, but they are momentary distractions.

Don’t let the director’s creative liberties or the movie’s few missteps deter you from seeing The Burial. It’s a fun movie with twists and turns that will keep you guessing and clutching your pearls from beginning to end. 

The Burial will be available on Amazon Prime on October 13.