A solid courtroom drama with bold words and outspoken lawyers.
Last week, I reviewed William Friedkin’s final film “The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial,” which was about a Navy captain accusing his men of mutiny for leading their destroyer out of a storm. Even though it doesn’t top the 1954 movie “The Caine Mutiny,” I still thought it was a worthy final chapter to his extinguished career.
This week, I review “The Burial,” which stars Jamie Foxx and Tommy Lee Jones in a story regarding race and injustice. They also have some support from a terrific supporting cast, who are all able to draw us into the courtroom drama on important subjects. In fact, both these kinds of dramas know how to represent monologues, courage, and pathos. It has to be hard when it comes to trial cases, and we’re eager to hear what each party has to say about the case.
Based on a true story set in 1995, Jones plays funeral director and WWII vet Jeremiah O’Keefe, whose lawyer friend Mike (Alan Ruck) sets up a meeting between him and the Loewen funeral home company’s very own Raymond Loewen (Bill Camp). Unfortunately, a contract dispute breaks out, and now O’Keefe’s family business may be in jeopardy by this billionaire, and needs to sue him.
In Mississippi, where the trial takes place, it consists of a black judge and jurors. And both parties believe a black lawyer has the best chance of winning a case. So, his lawyer Hal (Mammadou Athie) persuades the rich lawyer Willie E. Gary (Foxx) to take the case, by suggesting it could be like another Johnnie Cochran case.
To level the playing field, Loewen has his attorney in the form of a young black woman named Mama Downes (Jurnee Smollett). Don’t let her age and gender fool you. She has the words to pressure O’Keefe and Mike on the stand, and to trade sentences with Gary. And yet, the chemistry between the opposing lawyers is never mean-spirited or typical. But rather outspoken and charming.
“The Burial” was co-written and directed by Maggie Betts (“Novitiate”) and co-written by Doug Wright (whose Broadway credits include “Grey Gardens” and “Good Night, Oscar”), both of whom have adapted Jonathan Harr’s New Yorker article. Even if the screenplay gets a little cynical, it still offers the tone, dialogue, and humanity of a Broadway play. So it makes sense that these two filmmakers collaborate.
The story may be in the mid90s, but there is still some prejudice. For example, there are moments when Mike and a former Loewen employee named Lorraine McGrath (Erika Robel) are surprised to see that Hal is a lawyer, because he’s African-American, but they give him the “you look young” excuse. You see the look in his eyes that he knows exactly what they mean. But still, he asks McGrath to testify, which she does.
And that’s just one issue regarding race. When you hear the other issues in the story, you know you’re appalled and heartbroken.
Foxx delivers with the dialogue and versatility to express a hotheaded lawyer with knows how to play the courtroom game, while others believes he can be reckless. Smollett uses the right naturalism, especially when these two go against each other. Jones and Camp both meet well as age as the plaintiff and defendant, respectively. And Athie expresses the right kind of tone and realism when it comes to various circumstances.
“The Burial” has to fictionalize certain things within the story (I’ve never heard of this story, so I can’t really criticize), but other elements are true, and quite well-acted and well-photographed. Take the case.
Now in Select Theaters and Streaming on Amazon Prime Video This Friday
This article was written by me with full support of the SAG-AFTRA strike.