The Blackprint was invited to attend the premiere of Amazon Prime’s The Burial, hosted by The National HBCU Pre-Law Summit happening at the University of D.C. This organization was designed to target and engage with students who are interested in pursuing a law degree who attend HBCUs. At this summit, films showcasing the impact of Black lawyers are shown and then discussed, meant to empower the new generation of law students entering the field. This event wanted to show the hard and brilliant work that Black lawyers are expected to do at every point in their career, which is why William Gary is an excellent example for someone who has worked hard to be better for his community and someone who has helped others take back what is theirs.
Maggie Betts’ 2023 film The Burial is a courtroom drama following a handshake deal gone wrong between two funeral home companies and the court case that follows. When Jerry O’Keefe (Tommy Lee Jones) sues the behemoth Loewen Funeral Group over a contract dispute, he enlists the help of Willie Gary (Jamie Foxx), a successful yet unorthodox personal injury lawyer. Jurnee Smollett stars as Mame Downes, a no-nonsense lawyer representing the Loewen Group who clashes with Gary.
The Burial is a movie that does two things: tell a life story and ask us to be honest about the exploitation that these big corporations and companies do. Typically movies of the “small lawyer, big corporation case” genre are dramatic and thrilling. However, this movie seemed to fall flat, leaving more questions than answers. A meaningful ending note about the futures of Black lawyers and people who are trying to take back what was rightfully theirs seemed alluded to, but was not well delivered. This review will serve as an opportunity to commend what was done well, comment on what needed to be improved, and elaborate on how movies in the future can grow.
SECTION I: THE SPECTACLE AND HOW IT DISENFRANCHISES VICTIMS
The main thing I dislike about this movie is the way it treats the victims of the Loewen Group’s mismanagement, both in character and screen time. The movie makes several references to The OJ Simpson case and the dramatic nature of its most prolific lawyer, Johnnie Cochran. Willie Gary says several times he wants to go against Cochran in court. It’s ironic that this case is referenced so many times throughout the movie, because both fail to truly cover the lives lost and ruined by the actions of their more prominent characters. In my opinion, the balance of screen time between the drama of the court and the very real victims of this case is off. Some movies do this incredibly well; Just Mercy is a recent example. It’s obvious to the viewer how much influence Bryan Stevenson, the main character and lead lawyer in the movie, had in the production of Just Mercy. That becomes far less clear for The Burial; although Willie Gary is still living, it’s unclear how much he was consulted for the script writing process. I think the movie tends to lose itself in the inherent spectacle nature of the courtroom. In the movie, Willie Gary goes to great lengths to refer to a legal case as war. War is interesting to watch, its ever-moving nature is stimulating to the human mind. What’s often forgotten in war are the victims; the ripples that last far beyond the gunfire. The dozens of Black families ripped apart by the Loewen Group in their times of immense suffering are reduced to a two-minute montage late into the second act of the movie. We never see these characters again. Even O’Keefe, who is advertised on the movie’s poster as a main protagonist, is swallowed up by the dramatics of both the prosecution and defense.
SECTION II: MOVIE ADAPTATIONS OF REAL-LIFE EVENTS AND THEIR STRUGGLES WITH DEPTH
Everything on a foundational level was good, but the application was basic, stale and didn’t do anything revolutionary. This movie is about creating family-oriented legacies in a world that only cares about the individual gains of wealth and capital, using the story of a successful Black man who comes from a lineage of slavery as a platform for this story. I understand that depicting the effects of slavery and the continued disenfranchisement of Black Americans in the media is a struggle, especially when using a political, legal, and professional lens, but I think that this movie doesn’t have the excuse of nuance and style to hide behind. There were elements of style and attempts at nuance, considering that a major plotline is about how big corporations use manipulation tactics that target low-income, usually Black, communities. Without giving too much of a spoiler, it was clear that they tried, but traded class for style.
In order for something to be classy, there needs to be a sense of refinement or complexity that goes deeper than what is shown on the surface level, which this movie lacks. The visualization of the movie, the way it looks, the way the characters are dressed, and the overall tone of the movie are good, but there isn’t anything more that’s happening using these elements. They simply are present and not explored or used throughout the movie metaphorically to represent some of the larger themes of the movie. The more general point is how movie adaptations of real-life events (think Luhrman’s recent biopic Elvis) tend to be dramatic, which hurts the moral lesson of the story. Many times in the film, it seems as though dramatics and flair override the importance of a well-structured, well-shot, and realistic depiction of someone’s life. There’s nothing wrong with exaggeration in certain areas, however, as a writer and director, it’s important to make sure that those dramatic flairs don’t take priority over the heart of the movie.
In conclusion, The Burial falls short of its potential and the incredible man it decides to honor. The film may redeem itself visually and with another strong performance by Jamie Foxx, but in the end its one-note representation of Black people in professional settings toes the line of creating a caricature of Willie Gary’s legacy . The Burial constantly misses the opportunity to talk about the forgotten victims in big lawsuits, especially Black and low-income people. It places such an importance on style that the substance of the story is lost in the bright colored suits and dramatic monologues. The movie attempts to add to these conversations , but fails to do so in a way that causes a shift in perspective that lasts outside the theater. Which is disappointing because this is a story that deserves to be told with respect and care. It’s unclear if this was the right way to honor the real-life people who were affected by the malicious actions of the Loewen Group, and who were vindicated by Willie Gary. Black representation in film started with The Birth of a Nation, a race movie where white people covered their faces in shoe polish as a way to say, “This is who Black people are, this is what they look like, this is all they are”. This movie doesn’t push the needle forward, it unfortunately holds us back. Now that we have the tools to tell our own stories, it’s imperative that they are told in a way that reflects the complexities of our lives.