“The Burial” has several wonky components, like thin characters, an oddly framed rivalry, and an anti-climactic ending. And yet, Betts’ crowd-pleasing story of unlikely partners turned friends is undeniably entertaining. It dramatically begins a few months prior, when a broke Jeremiah—an owner of several funeral homes and a burial insurance business—ventures with his longtime lawyer Mike Allred (Alan Ruck) to Vancouver, BC, to sell three funeral homes to CEO Ray Loewen (Bill Camp). A deal was struck on Lowen’s yacht, but four months have passed, and Lowen hasn’t signed the contract. Only the young Hal (Mamoudou Athie), a newly minted attorney and family friend, is suspicious: He thinks Loewen is waiting out Jeremiah, hoping the taciturn American’s business crashes, leaving the entire funeral home chain buyable for pennies on the dollar. Hal convinces Jeremiah not only to sue, but to do so in the predominantly Black Hinds County. Here enters Willie E. Gary.
Most mixed-race “We Must Overcome” films like “Green Book,” “The Help,” and “The Blind Side” falter by trying to fix the long span of racial inequities within the space of a trite feel-good story, in which only the white character truly feels redeemed and recompensed by credits end. But “The Burial” doesn’t believe it can solve microaggressions, inequality, and racism in its 126-minute runtime. It’s also not affixed to healing Jeremiah of some guilty conscience. Rather, Foxx as Willie is the actual lead in one of his best, most vibrant, and funny performances in recent memory (though “They Cloned Tyrone” is a 2023 highlight for him, too).
In fact, Willie, who really wants to be taken seriously (and make good money), is the only fully sketched character. Jeremiah is mostly functional; apart from his business and large family (he has 13 children) and his wife (Pamela Reed), we don’t learn much about him beyond his reserved personality (a quiet verve Jones can play in his sleep and always very well). We don’t even see his kids. The same can be said about Willie’s wife, Gloria (Amanda Warren), and Jeremiah’s lawyers, Hal and Mike. A similar observation follows Mame Downes (Jurnee Smollett), a distinguished attorney Loewen hires when he realizes he needs Black attorneys to win in a Black county (we never really revisit the sketchiness of Hal reaching out to Willie, unbeknownst him, under the guise of the same tactic). Mame and Willie become friendly rivals—there’s awkward, charged dialogue between them that reads on the borderline of skeevy—leading to sharp tactics in the courtroom and sharp actorly decisions by Smollett as her character navigates representing a wretched white man.