Winning a legal case isn’t always just about interpreting the law in a straightforward way and determining guilt or innocence based on the evidence. There’s much more to it, and who people are — the defense, the prosecution, the lawyers, the jury, and the judge — can play heavily into a case. The Burial, a film with a misleading title based on its story, presents a trial where the specific details of the lawsuit in question become far less important than the racial and cultural makeup of the people in the courtroom.
Family man Jeremiah O’Keefe (Tommy Lee Jones) wants nothing more than to leave his Mississippi funeral home business to his numerous children and grandchildren. When a Canadian billionaire, Ray Loewen (Bill Camp), offers to buy several of his funeral homes and then stalls the deal, O’Keefe decides to sue him for breach of contract.
Realizing that the trial will take place in a majority Black district of Mississippi, O’Keefe opts to hire Willie E. Gary (Jamie Foxx), a charismatic personal injury lawyer from Florida who hasn’t lost a case in 12 years. The obvious attempt to appeal to a jury with a lawyer who looks and talks like them transforms the case into something much more personal than a professional contract dispute.
Based on true events, The Burial takes place in 1995 — a time close enough to the present day but one that still finds people doing and saying things that wouldn’t be nearly as accepted today. Hal Dockins (Mamoudou Athie), who joins Gary on O’Keefe’s legal team, experiences this upon meeting O’Keefe’s longtime lawyer Mike Allred (Alan Ruck), who expresses shock that Dockins is a lawyer, purporting that his youthful appearance was what threw him off. Allred explicitly tells Gary that he will have to adjust to working with Black lawyers — something that the confident and successful Gary enjoys bringing up to make Allred uncomfortable.
The Burial isn’t like another Foxx film, Just Mercy, which featured Black lawyers being strip-searched on their way into prison to see their clients. Gary and his team know that they’re great at what they do and laugh off discrimination and reductive statements. Their biggest challenge is facing off against the all-Black legal team that Loewen hires, led by the cutthroat Mame Downes (Jurnee Smollett).
While audiences will surely be enticed by director Maggie Betts‘ follow-up to her 2017 film Novitiate starring Margaret Qualley and a chilling Melissa Leo, the director’s latest possesses none of the subtlety or stylization of her previous film, instead telling a very typical courtroom drama that feels all too cloying for cinematic effect. The music swells just before major breakthroughs in a line of questioning, almost overwhelming and drowning out the dialogue. Scenes end abruptly, making for some awkward transitions between screens, and the judge is far too tolerant of blatant witness badgering, allowing the lawyers to go on long rants that should barely count as cross-examination.
The stakes never seem all that high despite the fact that O’Keefe stands to lose everything. For a man with 13 children and almost twice as many grandchildren, he seems relatively lonely, but he forms a warm bond with Gary, give or take a few obstacles along the way. Though there’s little about this film that elevates it beyond an extremely formulaic legal drama, the story behind it is compelling, and there’s something rewarding about watching people discover their innate goodness at just the right moment.
The Burial won’t net another trophy for past Oscar winners Jones and Foxx, who play their roles adequately, but it does make for a decent movie with a worthwhile message about what it means to be the little guy going up against an opponent that couldn’t care less.
Amazon Studios will release The Burial in select theaters on Oct. 6 ahead of its streaming debut on Prime Video on Oct. 13.