The Burial is a throwback to those rousing courtroom dramas of the ’90s. The types of stories where people who come from different worlds and have personalities that are so different that they tend to clash, but you know they will eventually always find common ground.
That’s what you have with The Burial, a widely entertaining piece of melodrama purely derived from Jamie Foxx’s performance. However, while you will ultimately walk away from the film with the same heartwarming giddiness, the filmmakers missed a real shot at exploring something far more interesting and personal.
Prime Video’s The Burial struggles to connect its inspirational story with the audience
The story follows Jeremiah O’Keefe (Tommy Lee Jones), a man who has run a family funeral home business for over a century. Unfortunately, Mr. O’Keefe runs into financial trouble with state insurance investigators because he fails to keep enough money. (This is very vague in the movie, but from some research, some state laws require the funeral home or cemetery to place a percentage of the prepayment in a state-regulated trust.)
O’Keefe consults his local family lawyer (Alan Ruck), who suggests his friend sell a portion of his business to a Canadian businessman, Ray Loewen (the great Bill Camp), who is buying funeral homes all across the South. After agreeing to enough money to ensure his business stays solvent and pays his debts, Loewen stalls and backs off the deal, leaving Jeremiah in dire business straits.
That’s when O’Keefe’s family friend Hal (Mamoudou Athie) suggests they hire Willie E. Gary (Foxx), a loquacious personal injury lawyer. But why hire a man like Gary, who has never been involved in a legal contract dispute? Hal says they can move the case to a primarily African-American county, garnering favor for Jeremiah, so a jury can have someone they can relate to since companies like the Loewen Group prey on socioeconomic issues in the community.
The Burial is loosely based on the true story of a landmark legal case that prevented businesses from preying on socioeconomically challenged communities. Directed by Maggie Betts (Novitiate) and written by Doug Wright (Quills), the film is only as good as it touches upon these issues. Wright’s script makes the connection between a vacant, unmarked graveyard in Mississippi, which, according to the movie, is filled with enslaved people.
That’s the point of The Burial, where companies run by wealthy white men are still making money off people and taking advantage of communities based on the color of their skin. Here, the funeral services are marked for religious communities that are majority Black and overcharge African American families. My issue with The Burial is that Foxx’s Gary is a far more interesting subject, and too much time is based on the Jones character O’Keefe.
When you have the movie The Rainmaker, we aren’t focused on the character dying of cancer; we see the case through the eyes of Matt Damon’s Rudy Baylor. A far more compelling story would have been Gary recruiting O’Keefe because of the financial implications and then being overcome with passion and emotion as he begins to relate to the racial angle and how it personally relates to him later. That’s where 30 minutes could have been cut and left on the floor.
However, we can forgive the script for probably pumping up the O’Keefe character because of the addition of a big, legendary star in Tommy Lee Jones. That’s because the enjoyment of The Burial is the chemistry between the leads, Foxx’s scintillating performance, and another mesmerizing turn by the consistently underrated Jurnee Smollett. While Athie’s character’s loose connection to the family seems to be a fabrication, the cast elevates the material.
While The Burial may lack trade in some interesting legal facts and avoid fully embracing the themes for far richer dramatic territory, it never fails to entertain. And that’s fine because if you love cinema, you have to embrace and enjoy genre films. This is all possible because of the dynamite turn by Jamie Foxx, who finds that heart-swelling sweet spot on why people are so attracted to courtroom dramas and the lawyers who fight for the ones being taken advantage of.
"Grade: “The Burial is light on facts, heavy on melodrama, but is elevated by a dynamite turn by Jamie Foxx, who finds that heart-swelling sweet spot that makes courtroom dramas so popular. ” 3/5 stars."
The Burial is now in select theaters. It’ll stream on Prime Video starting Oct. 12 at 8 p.m. ET for US audiences.