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The Burial–Reaching Beyond the Grave

The wealthy almost always have an impact on the financial decisions of the poor and on limiting their options to make informed choices. Combine that with the shameful  racist history in the US and we have the new Amazon Prime release: The Burial.

Based upon a true story,  the opening scene features small business proprietor, Jeremiah O’Keefe (Tommy Lee Jones), celebrating his seventy-fifth birthday. Surrounded by his loving wife and many adult children and grandchildren, all is not well for Jeremiah.  His Biloxi, Mississippi funeral home business of eight branches is struggling  and he is unable to pay off million-dollar business loans. He is facing bankruptcy. 

His attorney offers a solution:  sell a few of his facilities to Raymond Loewen (Bill Camp) whose vertically integrated death-care mega-corporation would provide the necessary funds to avoid default on his loans.  The problem is O’Keefe keeps waiting for the funds offered in a contract with Loewen Corporation but Loewen is delaying signing.  A young Black lawyer, Hal Dockins (Mamoudou Athie), a student O’Keefe once befriended, insightfully analyzes what is going on beneath the surface: namely, Loewen’s intentions to wait for bankruptcy and buy O’Keefe’s entire business for pennies on the dollar.

It seems a bit far-fetched to be empathizing with an affluent undertaker’s funeral home business who risked everything making poor business investments without coercion or deception.  Yet,  we do.

Hal Dockins pushes for hiring a prominent personal injury lawyer, one of the rich and famous televised as a mega-star: Willie Gary (Jamie Foxx).  He is flashy, ostentatious, and Black.  Gary is not interested in a contract dispute case, nor in representing a white client.  His success has been built upon fighting for the underdog, in a system of blatant discrimination riddled with micro-aggressions.  

But there is a strategic logic to having Gary as lead counsel in  O’Keefe’s lawsuit.  The  jury in Hinds county is predominantly black and a white lawyer who represents O’Keefe will not be viewed positively, especially with his past.  The American way of death, apparently, has an ugly racist veneer in its corporate consolidation of the “death industry” and exploitation of the grieving families.  

The Burial  is for those who love courtroom dramas.  As Willie, Jamie Foxx is brilliant,  hilarious, and over the top while self-effacing and touching in his identification with O’Keefe’s potential ruin.   Foxx plays all those components effortlessly, without reducing the character of  Willie to a buffoon or caricature.  This is perhaps Foxx’s best performance since his Academy-Award winning title role in “Ray”.

Academy-Award winner Tommy Lee Jones, as always, plays controlled anger and restraint like few other actors with his hang-dog face that makes the viewer want to protect him so that he can win the good fight.  The two award-winning stars electrify every scene they are in.

The Burial is a well-crafted, crowd-pleasing court  drama about the little guy taking on a corporation and winning not only for his sake, but also for the sake of people who society has relegated to being invisible and disposable. The heart and core of  The Burial, however, is the unlikely friendship between Gary and O’Keefe, and the common background that results in their understanding of each other’s dreams.

The supporting cast is also first-rate, especially Bill Camp, an  often overlooked supporting character actor (“Queen’s Gambit”, “The Night Of”, “Dark Waters’), Jurnee Smollett as an intelligent, highly skilled litigator, and newcomer Mamoudou Athie as Hal Dockins.

That The Burial is inspired by a real lawsuit is reassuring and affirming for the pursuit of and receipt of justice.

Availability:  Amazon Prime

Note:  Willie Gary, known as “The Giant Killer,” became one of the country’s most prominent trial lawyers, winning cases against Anheuser-Busch and the Walt Disney Company, among others.

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