Willie E. Gary, portrayed by Jamie Foxx (known for “Ray”), was born into poverty in Georgia as the son of a sharecropper. He attended college on a football scholarship and later pursued a career in law. Eventually, he became a prominent attorney in Florida, earning a reputation for not only winning every case he took but also securing multi-million-dollar awards for his clients. He gained considerable recognition for his legal victory against Disney, which resulted in a $240 million settlement for his clients. In 1995, he successfully represented Jeremiah Joseph O’Keefe, played by Tommy Lee Jones (renowned for “The Fugitive”), a Mississippi funeral home owner, in a contract dispute against The Loewen Group. A movie based on this court case, titled “The Burial,” is set to premiere on Prime Video this week.
The O’Keefe Funeral home had been a family legacy, passed down through generations, with eight locations and a burial insurance company. However, due to a series of unfortunate investments, Jeremiah found himself in a precarious situation, facing the potential suspension of his insurance license by state regulators. This threat was a result of the financial losses he incurred, which were connected to his clients’ burial insurance contracts. Feeling cornered and determined to preserve his family’s legacy, Jeremiah entered into a business arrangement with Ray Loewen, played by Bill Camp (known for “12 Years A Slave”), the owner of a Canadian burial conglomerate. When it became evident that Loewen was stalling and that Jeremiah was sinking deeper into debt, O’Keefe decided to sue for breach of contract, even though the contract itself was never signed by Loewen.
Maggie Betts, the co-writer and director, injects this intense courtroom drama, inspired by true events, with timeless moral values. She layers the film with the high-stakes moments of a legal battle atop a profound sense of history, particularly related to slavery, and the importance of family, all of which are foundational elements in the Deep South and the nation as a whole. Her visual storytelling, including the depiction of slave burial land, holds hidden symbolism meant to encourage a deeper understanding of those who have been historically oppressed and the enduring impact of the past on contemporary society.
The cast delivers exceptional performances, translating the words of Betts, Doug Wright (“Quills”), and Jonathan Harr (“A Civil Action”) into a rich spectrum of emotions. Foxx and Jones, despite the latter showing signs of age, exhibit a powerful on-screen connection, mirroring the real-life bond between Gary and O’Keefe. Bill Camp excels in portraying the unlikable, millionaire antagonist who preys on the less fortunate under the guise of business. Jurnee Smollett, known for “Birds of Prey,” portrays the well-educated and resolute opposing counsel with a grace and calmness that conceals the underlying strength ready to strike, much like a coiled python. Mamoudou Athie, a relative newcomer, and seasoned actors such as Alan Ruck (“Ferris Bueller’s Day Off”) and Pamela Reed (“Kindergarten Cop”) round out the cast effectively.
“The Burial” follows the familiar contours of a courtroom drama, not attempting to revolutionize the genre. Nevertheless, the film remains compelling, with Betts maintaining a steady pace, aided by the talents of the ensemble cast. The costumes also play a pivotal role in character development, offering glimpses of 1990s fashion, from the dynamic and flashy attire of the charismatic Gary to the crisp, corporate wardrobe of Smollett’s attorney, as well as the conservative grey and tan suits worn by older, southern, white males. These wardrobe choices help define the characters and aid the actors in embodying their respective roles.
Everyone appreciates a classic underdog story, and this film draws its narrative from real-life events, adding an extra layer of authenticity. It imparts valuable lessons without becoming overly didactic, making it an engaging and meaningful viewing experience.