Courtroom dramas were once a thriving subgenre in the cinema marketplace of ideas. A reliable showcase for movie star charisma, they were once a great conduit through which the exploitative nature of America’s mainly oppressive systems could be battled through David-and-Goliath-like underdog narratives. But perhaps not since their 1990s heyday has an example of the form been as entertaining as “The Burial,” the latest directorial effort from “Novitiate” director Maggie Betts.
The film is based on the true story of a contract dispute between a family-owned funeral company and its corporate competitor. Jamie Foxx stars in another powerhouse turn as flashy personal injury lawyer Willie E. Gary, a man making a run at becoming the next Johnnie Cochran. Mississippi businessman Jeremiah O’Keefe (Tommy Lee Jones) hires Gary at the behest of one of his attorneys, Hal Dockins (Mamoudou Athie), a young Black lawyer who doesn’t think their lead counsel Mike Allred (Alan Ruck), an oblivious white man, will be able to speak to what is likely to be a primarily Black jury. Despite a lack of experience with contract law, Gary is preternaturally gifted at the emotion and storytelling necessary to win at trial. He’s also never lost a case.
What begins as a boring debate over the nature of a shady business deal becomes a technicolor symposium on character, honor and local social standing when the defendant, the grotesquely rich Raymond Loewen (Bill Camp), hires a token Black litigator of his own. Well, several, actually. He brings in Mame Downes (Jurnee Smollett) to lead an entire team of the best Black lawyers in America to duke it out with Gary’s ostentatious crew. A small army of African American legal eagles going to war against one another over two old white men.
From its deft scripting, assured direction, and a whole host of ’90s needle drops from the likes of SWV and Salt-N-Pepa, “The Burial” feels like a 1995 time capsule for an era where all a movie truly needed was a pair of movie stars, a courthouse and a believable crusade to earn itself a lifetime of reruns on TBS. There’s a scene where Betts intercuts Gary’s and Downes’ respective opening statements, so they fire back and forth like a live debate on the nightly news. She also shrewdly employs first-person-perspective shots of the jurors and some sympathetic witnesses similar to the confrontational style Jonathan Demme so effectively used in the 1993 AIDS drama “Philadelphia.” Though, it must be said, her picture is decidedly more crowd-pleasing and less difficult to reckon with upon first watch.
That said, it’s not all surface-level charm. The film’s buoyant tone operates much like Gary’s captivating courtroom antics. Its form is there to better swallow its function as a delivery system for this country’s harsh truths about class and race. The film occasionally indulges in boilerplate instances of togetherness in its efforts to show the blossoming friendship between O’Keefe and Gary across the racial divide. But it also focuses on their kinship as men who want to provide for their families. Their successes nonetheless feel honest and authentic in the face of Loewen’s monstrous wealth.
It’s no easy feat to make a man who owns 18 funeral homes and a lawyer who owns a private jet feel like believable underdogs or, at the very least, not craven hypocrites. But Camp’s Loewen is so uniquely detestable. When we first meet him offering to buy a few of O’Keefe’s homes to help him stave off potential bankruptcy, he gleefully holds court over the potential of their industry. Never before has a man been so ecstatic about the statistics of America housing 51 million citizens over 65, or as Loewen sees them, future dead folks. It’s only outshone in villainy later in the film when Gary exposes a worse truth about Loewen: He doesn’t even know how much he spent on that $25 million boat large enough to host two helicopter pads.
“The Burial” only falters in the second act, when Gary is benched for making a grave tactical mistake and must sit as Allred fails to regain ground with the jury. It’s like Jamie Foxx is standing on the apron during a tag-team wrestling match, begging to get back into the ring where he can do some good. His megawatt magnetism is just too strong to keep on the sideline.
But by its conclusion, “The Burial” accomplishes something different from the legal dramas that inspired it. Most of these pictures engage with the fact that the system is rigged to the highest levels in favor of the rich. Companies can act with utter impunity, and even those brave, stupid, or selfless enough to fight back against them must pay a significant toll. But “The Burial” differs from heavier films like Todd Haynes’ 2019 thriller “Dark Waters” in its central message.
Where most of these films have to wrestle with the idea that no amount of money can be enough to undo the injustices caused by the system’s sore winners, “The Burial” uses the law as a necessary cudgel. You can’t change the world substantively. But you can always make the bastards pay in the only way they can truly feel: from their wallet.
“The Burial” is now streaming on Amazon Prime.
This piece was written during the 2023 SAG-AFTRA strikes. Without the labor of the actors currently on strike, “The Burial” wouldn’t exist.