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The Burial

by Dwight Brown, NNPA Film Critic
Tommy Lee Jones and Jamie Foxx in The Burial (photo courtesy of Prime Video).

 (***)

It’s an unlikely paring: A 75-year-old, southern White boy and a flashy ambulance-chasing Black lawyer. But it works. It’s them against big business; David versus Goliath; an ancient tale that never grows old. 

Screenwriter Doug Wright and Screenwriter/Director Maggie Betts use a fascinating true-life event as their source material. In Biloxi Mississippi, in the 1990s, Jeremiah O’Keefe (Tommy Lee Jones), a World War II vet and civil rights proponent is the proud owner of a funeral business that has been in his family since the 1800s. The cold-hearted Canadian billionaire Ray Loewen (Bill Camp) is buying up all the funeral businesses in the South. He and O’Keefe get into a dispute. The rich man thinks he’s cornered the old codger, can do as he pleases and bully him out of business. 

To save his company and dignity, O’Keefe needs to hire a legal representative, go to court and sue. Surprisingly, he doesn’t pick his old friend and personal lawyer Mike (Alan Ruck) to lead his quest for justice. Instead, he chooses a brassy lawyer who advertises on TV like a used car salesman. The old southern gent bonds with Willie Gary (Jamie Foxx), who forms a legal team with his own partners, Mike and the very young attorney Hal Dockins (Mamoudou Athie, Jurassic World Dominion). Willie’s boys sling little rocks. Loewen hires Harvard Law School-educated Mame Downes (Jurnee Smollett, Lovecraft Country). She and her crew hurl boulders. The courtroom drama becomes a compelling test of wills. 

Hard to believe Betts, who directed the very sobering nun drama Novitiate, has this lively, entertainment-savvy and comic sensibility. But she does. The script goes where any Erin Brockovich wannabe would go. So, the ending won’t surprise anyone who follows films in the genre or can thumb through Wikipedia. The joy is in the journey not just the ending. A crowd-pleasing trip on a bumpy road that showcases bullied protagonists’ best instincts to resist, hope, persist, survive and fight the good fight. 

Betts does particularly well with her lead actors, giving them room to do their thing. Jones is reverent as the elder man who has made mistakes. Grumpy, flexible, determined and bossy: “Since the first day that you had this case, you’ve tried to turn this into your own one-ring circus.” Jeremiah’s stress, from surviving WWII, owning a business and making bad financial decisions, is in every crease in Jones’ heavily wrinkled face. He’s perfectly cast. Foxx is almost giddy as the gospel spirited, gaudy-dressing, cliché-spewing attorney who is out of his league but fighting to the final verdict. Frankly this is the actor’s best performance since Ray. He makes Willie as real as he can be. Animated, but never over the top—while Smollett becomes the adversary, the temptress, the one to beat.

The lively ensemble depicts the best in humans and the worst. The supporting cast includes Dorian Missick, Pamela Reed, Amanda Warren and Tywayne Wheatt, who add to the film’s vibrant spirit and keep the energy level up. While Mirren Gordon-Crozier’s costumes, Kay Lee’s production design and Maryse Alberti’s cinematography make the interiors, exteriors and clothes look very southern, very ‘90s, very every day. 

Expect theater audiences to have their hearts warmed collectively. They’ll giggle at Foxx’s increasingly endearing antics. They’ll be surprised that the old White southern gentleman is not a bigot but a forward thinker. They might even like the head games Smollett and Foxx play as the country bumpkin attorney and classy lawyer challenge each other. Willie: “Litigation is war!” Mame: “Once we begin the trial, I will destroy you.” Streaming audiences will be thrilled but may take a bathroom break as the footage heads to its lengthy two hours and six minutes ending.

Any comparisons to Barack Obama and Joe Biden are unwarranted—but funny. Comparisons to David and Goliath are more apropos. If it worked for the Bible, it should work just fine for cinemas and Amazon Prime Video.

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