Sunday, 23 June 2024

‘The Burial’ revives courtroom drama as theatrical spectacle


Based on a true story, Amazon Prime’s legal drama “The Burial” is likely as any fact-based movie to take liberties with real events, but the outcome is thoroughly enjoyable even if one is familiar or not with the 1999 New Yorker article of the same name about a flamboyant Florida trial attorney.

The colorful person at the center of the story is Willie E. Gray, a personal injury lawyer who rose to legal prominence from his upbringing as a sharecropper’s son. From a rags-to-riches lifestyle, Willie acquired the nickname “The Giant Killer” for slaying rapacious corporations.

Despite being sharply-dressed and sporting a diamond-covered Rolex watch and gold-framed spectacles, Willie has the persuasive courtroom demeanor of a mix of Southern Baptist preacher and circus showman that appeals to ordinary folk.

That Willie (Jamie Foxx) has become so famous and wealthy in victorious courtroom battles has even led to an interview on Robin Leach’s “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous” highlighting his excessive high life, including the pair of shiny Rolls-Royces owned by him and his wife Gloria (Amanda Warren).

Who better to portray this legal giant, who lives in a 50-room Florida mansion and owns a private airliner named “Wings of Justice,” than the talented Jamie Foxx whose charisma and dramatic chops could not have been better utilized to shine in the lap of luxury and the theatrics of courtroom drama?

Meanwhile, in Biloxi, Mississippi, Tommy Lee Jones’ Jeremiah “Jerry” O’Keefe is celebrating his 75th birthday with his wife Annette (Pamela Reed) and thinking about how to leave behind a legacy for his 13 children.

His funeral home business at a few locations around the state has come under pressure from state insurance regulators, and the stress causes Jerry to engage his lifelong friend and attorney Mike Allred (Alan Ruck) to look into selling some of his parlors to a Canadian conglomerate.

The Loewen Group, headed by unscrupulous Canadian billionaire Ray Loewen (Bill Camp), is gobbling up so many burial homes all across Canada and the United States that you wonder if antitrust statutes are being violated.

On board Loewen’s expensive yacht, Jerry reaches a deal that should extricate him from his financial troubles, but the dodgy death industry mogul slow walks, signing the contract and making the payment the Mississippi businessman so desperately needs.

While his attorney Allred is an old school Southern patrician, Jerry is encouraged by young Black associate lawyer Hal Dockins (Mamoudou Athie), to consider a different legal tack by hiring the flashy Florida litigator who has never handled contract law.

The factor of race comes into play because Jerry’s team files a civil lawsuit in Hinds County where the jury pool will undoubtedly consist predominantly of African-Americans and the judge assigned the case is likely to also be Black.

The strategy of the lead plaintiff attorney being a person of color becomes even more crucial when allegations are leveled at the Canadian-owned funeral homes for taking advantage of low-income, mostly Black customers into purchasing overpriced burial services.

The Loewen Group counters by hiring as lead counsel Mame Downes (Jurnee Smollett), a driven, beautiful Black woman with a razor-sharp mind and a pleasing yet perceptive courtroom demeanor that proves at the outset to be more than equal to Willie’s power of persuasion.

In what can only be a strategic blunder, Jerry ends up on the witness stand only to be eviscerated on cross-examination. At this point, Willie and his cadre of Black colleagues are pushed aside for Allred to act as chief counsel.

A few twists and turns in the trial eventually unveil a disturbing reminder that ancient ties in the Deep South prove duly problematic in a climate where racial sensitivities can be truly nettlesome.

In a surprise to no one, Willie gets back in the legal saddle just as things are heating up. He pushes the envelope when manipulating the jury’s antipathy to an unsympathetic defendant by exposing his unsavory practices in the funeral industry and ostentatious wealth gained on the backs of the unfortunate.

Notwithstanding courtroom scenes that occasionally feel not wholly authentic, “The Burial” is a rousing crowd-pleaser that is endlessly entertaining for a dramatized real-life landmark case that resulted in a half-billion dollars judgment for the plaintiff.

Even Johnnie Cochran, for all his theatrics in the O.J. Simpson murder trial, seems inferior to the talents of Willie Gary. The only reason to mention this is when Willie and Mame meet at a hotel bar the TV screen is noticeable for a shot of Cochran in the middle of defending the ex-football player.

The major surprise behind “The Burial” is how it took almost a quarter-century for this compelling story to come to the screen. Apparently, the project bounced around various studios over the intervening years. Fortunately, we now have a film that is most definitely worth watching.

Tim Riley writes film and television reviews for Lake County News.

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