The Burial Revives the Hollywood Courtroom Dramedy

Jamie Foxx as Willie Gary, Pamela Reed as Annette O'Keefe, Tommy Lee Jones as Jeremiah O'Keefe, and Mamoudou Athie as Hal Dockins in The Burial Photo: Skip Bolen © AMAZON CONTENT SERVICES LLC

Not to get all Jim Gill, but we should be singing the words, “May there always be courtroom dramas.” The fine folks at CrimeReads are right too. Hollywood loves both tight and low-key legal thrillers, and for good reasons. They give an entertainment industry run by millionaires and billionaires cache opportunities to spotlight and support the causes of the common man. Legal movies have nearly automatic human interest draw and carry a heroic fighting spirit worth keeping alive in the public consciousness. Even better, the actors in these films, more often than not, really get to pontificate and show off. 

Echoing writer Dwyer Murphy from CrimeReads again, after what felt like a Grisham-fueled two-decade peak in the 1980s and 1990s, good courtroom dramas have been harder to find year-to-year. It’s been too thin between the releases of The Lincoln Lawyer in 2011, The Judge in 2014, Marshall in 2017, and Just Mercy in 2019. Thanks to prestige television and the boom of true crime documentaries, interests have swerved to adjacent movies like The Big Short or Dumb Money that are more fascinated by the incident or build-up than the legal conclusions.

Two opposing attorneys shake hands in a lobby.
Image courtesy of Amazon Prime Video

Why does that happen? The best guess is predictability. The formula of the classic courtroom drama has been virtually unchanged for a century. You have the weak versus the strong, clashes of idealism, a course of surprising little revelations, a few big speeches, and the anticipation of a decision that hopefully leads to a happy ending and assigned comeuppance. That last part is the clincher. Folks want happy endings, and that’s why we can queue up the Jim Gill lyric submission. People need them and they’ll keep coming to see one.

For all of these reasons and more, we can be pleased and entertained that The Burial is here on Amazon Prime Video. It’s as stock and formulaic as it comes within the courtroom drama subgenre. Hot damn, that’s going to work every time. Within the formula, the heart and spine of the narrative will always be the two biggest ingredients. The backbone is a compelling case, and the beating pulse is the people embroiled in the affair.

A white lawyer and Black lawyer stare each other down in The Burial
Image courtesy of Amazon Prime Video

When you have a thought-provoking case populated by dynamic characters, the science takes over. Slap on the “based on a true story” label, lift up a female director stepping up from indies, pair up two Academy Award winners that have never worked together, and the formula gets additional sweeteners. Movies like The Burial justify the use and success of the formula, flavor enhancers and all.

The Burial hooks you immediately in the opening scene. Florida personal injury lawyer Willie E. Gary, played by Academy Award winner Jamie Foxx, has stepped in front of the jury to make his closing argument. His opening line is “Can I just talk simple to y’all?” From there, Wille belts out a loquacious and spirited perspective of the case’s events and unfurls his grand legal splendor to enrapture the jury and the gathered observers in the public seating area. During this rant, a Steadicam orbits Gary and follows his prowl—sometimes close to accentuate his words and sometimes far to take in his full legal splendor.

A lawyer leans back and puts his feet on a desk in The Burial
Image courtesy of Amazon Prime Video

In all of five minutes The Burial unleashes the fullest version of Jamie Foxx in the showiest performance we’ve seen from him in years. The multi-talented star has always had an expressive personality and nuclear-level charisma. His body language multiplies his diction and inflection of line deliveries. Jokes fall out of him like a waterfall. Foxx himself is a character of the highest order. Let a character be a character. Let him rip. Novitiate director Maggie Betts and a shiny pair of glasses crowing his visage sure do, much to everyone’s delight. 

Gary’s summation to the Black-friendly jury leads to a standing ovation, one witnessed by someone who will be his future client. Fellow Oscar winner Tommy Lee Jones plays decorated World War II veteran Jeremiah O’Keefe, the owner and operator of several funeral homes in southern Mississippi. After seeing Willie’s flashy TV ads and self-aggrandizing appearance of Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous, O’Keefe sought Gary’s services for a contract law case versus the Loewen Group of Canada, headed by CEO Raymond Loewen (an avaricious Bill Camp). Willie rejected the notion initially as not being lucrative enough and in a law arena out of his element. That is until Jeremiah’s legal grad confidante Hal Dockins (Mamoudou Athie of Black Box and Elemental) shows him the potential nine-figure dollar signs.

Two legal teams stand apart from each other in a courtroom
Image courtesy of Amazon Prime Video

O’Keefe’s suit stemmed from a reneged contract from Loewen to buy half of O’Keefe’s funeral homes and allow Jeremiah to preserve the profitable burial insurance wing of his multi-generational family business. By not honoring their half of the deal and stonewalling communication, the Loewen Group was counting on O’Keefe’s business bottoming out where a more affordable and complete takeover could occur. The entire O’Keefe legal defense, comprised of Hal, Jeremiah’s long-time lawyer Mike Allred (a long-lost Alan Ruck), and Gary’s flamboyant team of assistants, seek to prove that intent and find a greater pattern of this company’s practices in hopes of grabbing the billion-dollar company by the wallet and balls. 

Plain as day and key to the history depicted, racial dynamics are front-and-center in The Burial. The court venue and jury box of O’Keefe’s home county is predominantly poor and Black, which is what led Jeremiah strategically to seek out Willie E. Gary in the first place and for the Loewen Group to counter with the young top-of-her-class wildcat of Mame Downes (a fiery Jurnee Smollett who goes tit-for-tat with Foxx) nicknamed “The Python.” This landscape also calls out Allred’s ingrained prejudices, Willie’s impoverished roots in Florida, Jeremiah’s upstanding community history in Mississippi, and the exploitative practices of the Loewen Group to target takeovers during the “golden era of death” in the 1990s when the aging Greatest Generation population was creating a surge for the funeral industry. 

Scripted by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Doug Wright, The Burial merges these intersecting pushes and pulls into a tightly composed picture that checks all the boxes. Where the first act of the film focuses on Foxx and Jones finding common ground and joining forces, the litigious showdown filling the second half gives Smollett and Athie times to shine next to the veterans with excellent contributions to what could have been a simple two-hander. Thanks to Foxx and the cast of chirping paralegal reinforcements behind his Gary character, victorious humor injects itself quite easily into the serious affairs, balancing The Burial between the crowd-pleasing goals and fire-branded messages.

Written by Don Shanahan

DON SHANAHAN is a Chicago-based Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic writing here on Film Obsessive as the Editor-in-Chief and Content Supervisor for the film department. He also writes for his own website, Every Movie Has a Lesson. Don is one of the hosts of the Cinephile Hissy Fit Podcast on the Ruminations Radio Network and sponsored by Film Obsessive. As a school teacher by day, Don writes his movie reviews with life lessons in mind, from the serious to the farcical. He is a proud director and one of the founders of the Chicago Indie Critics and a voting member of the nationally-recognized Critics Choice Association, Online Film Critics Society, North American Film Critics Association, International Film Society Critics Association, Internet Film Critics Society, Online Film and TV Association, and the Celebrity Movie Awards.

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