Moving Pictures
Oct 19, 2023, 06:27AM

Big Funeral Home

The Burial is an old-school lawyer movie: not about a case of life or death, but a story of justice delivered.

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The Burial is an old-school lawyer movie. It’s not about a case of life or death circumstances or an especially important historical case. It’s a story of justice delivered, featuring larger-than-life lawyers characters. The film is based on a true story, not a John Grisham novel, but it feels like the Grisham adaptations that used to appear at the multiplex all the time throughout the 1990s. The most recent of this sort of movie, 2019’s Just Mercy, starred Jamie Foxx as the defendant; this time, he’s the lawyer, while Tommy Lee Jones is his client.

The Burial, available on Prime Video after a brief theatrical bow, is about a real-life case from the 1990s—one in which race ended up playing an outsized role, even if it started out as a legal dispute between two older white guys. It’s based on a New Yorker article from 1999 by Jonathan Hart; between The Burial and the new, David Grann-derived Scorsese film, it’s a big month for movies that adapt the work of New Yorker writers.

Jones is Jeremiah O’Keefe, a World War II veteran who lives in a small town in Mississippi and operates funeral homes. After he tries to sell some of them to a large corporation (led by Bill Camp) and gets screwed, he sues. The old HBO series Six Feet Under also had a plot about an evil funeral home conglomerate trying to put the mom-and-pop morticians out of business, which must’ve been inspired by this case.

Knowing that he’s likely to face a predominantly Black jury, O’Keefe decides to hire Willie E. Gary (Foxx), a Johnny Cochran type who combines a passion for civil rights justice with a propensity to live large. The O.J. Simpson trial, the film mentions a couple of times, was happening at around the same time, with Gary clearly chasing Cochran-style fame. In fact, he originally turns the case because it doesn’t seem big and lucrative enough for him.

Mamoudou Athie plays a young lawyer on O’Keefe’s side, while Alan Ruck is his previous attorney, shoved to the side when it’s realized that his good ol’ boy hocus won’t fly with a Black jury. The under-appreciated actress Jurnee Smollett is the lawyer for the corporation. The case ends up pulling in the civil rights histories of both parties, and it ultimately segues into a heartwarming tale of friendship between the white and Black protagonists. This raises Green Book alarm bells, even before The Burial ends with a nearly identical title card about how the two men remained friends for the rest of their lives, following the events of the film.

The difference is, The Burial isn’t nearly as insulting or mealy-mouthed, and unlike Peter Farrelly’s Oscar-winning film from five years ago, it doesn’t marginalize the Black guy’s story in favor of the white guy’s. After the sudden popularity of Suits on Netflix, have the algorithms determined that courtroom movies and shows are back? I hope so.


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