'The Burial' Review
October 11, 2023
Director Maggie Betts’ The Burial feels as if it was engineered in a lab specializing in making crowd-pleasing movies. You’re supposed to laugh, cry, boo, and applaud at every moment it wants you to, almost as if you’re playing a game of Simon Says. It’s impossible not to be aware that you’re being sold to with the tactics of a used car salesman. And yet it hardly becomes a hindrance because the calculations made by Betts and co-writer Doug Wright were made with genuine emotion, which effortlessly translates off the screen.
That’s not to say that Betts and Wright are perfect in their endeavors, far from it. Almost all of the characters are thinly drawn, most notably Bill Camp’s mustache-twirling billionaire bad guy who literally says he wants more elderly people to die so he can make more money. He’s the head of the Lowen Group, a corporate behemoth that owns hundreds of funeral homes in the southern United States. Jeremiah “Jerry” O'Keefe (Tommy Lee Jones) owns about a dozen homes in Mississippi and he plans to pass them down to his thirteen children just like his father and his grandfather did. Money is a bit tight right now, so Jerry decides to sell three of his homes to the Loewen Group. A handshake deal was struck, but months have now passed and the corporation still hasn’t signed the contract. It seems the sharks are waiting for Jerry to drown so they can snatch up his whole lot for pennies on the dollar.
Jerry’s freshly graduated attorney Hal (Mamoudou Athie) persuades him to sue and bring on the help of power player Willie Gary (Jamie Foxx). Despite Jerry’s mission of doing what’s right, Willie is only initially here because he sees dollar signs and a chance to join Johnnie Cochran as the nation’s most famous lawyer. The O.J. Simpson case runs parallel to the film’s events, which is largely why this prototypical David vs. Goliath story has gone unnoticed in the American culture. Like O.J., this case is not just about contract law, it is also about race. You see, Jerry filed suit in Hinds County, Mississippi, a city with a 70% Black population. It’s not a coincidence that Jerry hires Willie and the Loewen Group hires Mame Downes (Jurnee Smollett) to represent their white selves.
As opposed to many other movies that tackle racism in the South, Betts never lets her film feature a “white savior” or “magical negro” narrative. There are some small handlings of microaggressions (Jerry’s previous lawyer, played by Alan Ruck, constantly refers to Hal as “son”) and the revelation that the National Baptist Convention, the largest arm of the Black Chuch, was the main target of the Loewen Group’s schemes. There isn’t an attempt to solve these problems, as both we and Betts know that these issues are just as prevalent in 2023 as they were in 1995.
The courtroom scenes are a bit perfunctory, mostly fast-forwarding past all the stuff we’re well acquainted with to get to the good parts. Foxx is at his movie star peak as Willie, parading himself around as he treats the courtroom as a one-man performance. Betts knows that all she needs to do is let Foxx work, and she does by giving him several one-take speeches.
The Burial gets the spirit of the ‘90s inspirational courtroom dramas just right, pitching down the middle to every demographic. It shouldn’t work, and yet it does thanks to sound filmmaking and entertaining performances. To be honest, the worst thing about it is the title. Is it too late to change that?