The Burial

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A movie called The Burial that buries its main story – it sounds like some kind of meta-joke. But it isn’t. Whether the strategy works is the real question though.

The story was first told in the New Yorker and relayed what happened to a real-life Mississippi guy called O’Keefe whose struggling funeral-home business was offered a buyout in the mid-1990s by the Loewen company, a megacorp specialising in burials and, more importantly (it turns out), burial insurance.

O’Keefe and Loewen agreed a deal in principle but then the trail went cold. Eventually, convinced that Loewen were sitting on their hands until he went bust, so it could buy him out for cents on the dollar, O’Keefe sued Loewen and everyone headed to court. Where O’Keefe was unlikely to win, since the contract between the two parties had not been signed by Loewen…

Or that’s how this movie tells it. It doesn’t on the face of it seem enough for the basis of a story, and it isn’t. The contract wasn’t signed. Case dismissed. The end.

The real story comes further down the line when it’s revealed that Loewen really makes the bulk of its billions from selling insurance and funeral packages through black Christian churches. In return for a sweetener, the churches then sell Loewen funeral packages to bereaved members of their congregations, charging prices so high for funeral packages etc, that “price gouging” is the only phrase that can apply.

What has this to do with O’Keefe? Absolutely nothing. Surely it cannot materially affect his case? Bizarrely, it turns out, it can. Even more bizarrely, if O’Keefe wins, and damages are awarded, he will be the beneficiary of the decision, even though it was black churchgoers who have been gouged by Loewen, not him.

The reason for this strange turn of legal events is that race has become folded into the mix somewhere along the way. A factor in US life so potent that it can turn a case about one thing, a contract that was never signed, into a case about something else entirely. Very much on the downlow, this is a film about restitutive justice, and in an even more hushed voice about the case for reparations for black people living under a system skewed against them.

Jurnee Smollett as hotshot lawyer Mame Downes
Jurnee Smollett as hotshot lawyer Mame Downes

Running over the top of all this, with the sound and fury turned up, is an incredibly entertaining courtroom drama full of dramatic back-and-forth and great performances. Tommy Lee Jones plays 75-year-old father-of-13 Jeremiah O’Keefe, a decent guy who goes to law as a matter of principle not because he thinks he can win. Alan Ruck, hot from playing Connor Roy in Succession, again plays the dog who will be kicked and kicked again, as O’Keefe’s lawyer, a racist whose family’s past will also be brought into play as the court case continues.

Enter, some way in, Jamie Foxx as ambulance-chasing lawyer Willie Gary, brought in because he knows how to play a black jury, in front of which this case will almost certainly be heard. Jurnee Smollett plays Mame Downes, a sharp black lawyer hired in by Loewen boss Ray Loewen (Bill Camp, reliably great) when he realises how O’Keefe’s team are going to play it. Our eyes and ears in all this are Hal Dockins (Mamoudou Athie), a junior lawyer on O’Keefe’s team.

In the background, referred to several times, is the OJ case, which is also going through the courts, making a star of OJ’s defence lawyer Johnnie Cochran (Willie Gary’s hero), in which a hotshot black lawyer is turning a seemingly straightforward trial about murder into a more convoluted trial about race.

Like the O’Keefe/Loewen case itself, this is a fascinating movie with a dubious undertow. The attempts to make price gouging symptomatic of a system rigged against black people are unintentionally infantilising. There is also some uneasy “black folks and white folks getting along just fine” stuff between Foxx and Jones, which both men graciously play as if it isn’t queasy Hollywood Driving Miss Daisy plotting.

Perhaps the main question mark remaining at the end is what view director Maggie Betts and her co-writer Doug Wright have about the way the court case played out. Are we expected to believe that justice has been done – the right verdict arrived at the wrong way? Most likely, yes, though Betts and Wright are soft-pedalling here to such an extent that you suspect they know something isn’t quite right.

More time might have made for more clarity and nuance. American Crime Story’s first season (the one starring Cuba Gooding Jr, John Travolta, Sarah Paulson et al) spent about ten hours on the OJ case, spinning out of it a nuanced story about human foibles and a wonky judicial system. Most of the elements in the OJ case are in The Burial too. Buried.

The Burial – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2023

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