I loved The Burial on Amazon Prime. Not because it’s a great movie but because it serves as a cinematic representation of my academic paper with Eric Helland, Race, Poverty, and American Tort Awards. Be warned—this isn’t a spoiler-free discussion, but the plot points are largely predictable. The Burial is a legal drama based on
The post The Burial appeared first on Marginal REVOLUTION.
I loved The Burial on Amazon Prime. Not because it’s a great movie but because it serves as a cinematic representation of my academic paper with Eric Helland, Race, Poverty, and American Tort Awards. Be warned—this isn’t a spoiler-free discussion, but the plot points are largely predictable.
The Burial is a legal drama based on real events starring Jamie Foxx as Willie Gary, a flashy personal injury lawyer who takes the case of Jeremiah O’Keefe, a staid funeral home operator played by Tommy Lee Jones. O’Keefe is suing a Canadian conglomerate over a contract dispute and he hires Gary because he’s suing in a majority black district where Gary has been extremely successful at bringing cases (always black clients against big corporations).
As a drama, I’d rate the film a B-. The major failing is the implausible friendship between the young, black, flamboyant Willie Gary and the older, white subdued Jeremiah O’Keefe. Frankly, the pair lack chemistry and the viewer is left puzzled about the foundation of their friendship. The standout performance belongs to Jurnee Smollett, who excels as the whip-smart opposing counsel.
What makes The Burial interesting, however, is that it tells two stories about Willie Gary and the lawsuits. The veneer is that Gary is a crusading lawyer who uncovers abuse to bring justice. Most reviews review the veneer. Hence we are told this is a David versus Goliath story, a Rousing True Story and a story about the “dogged pursuit of justice.” The veneer is there to appease the simple minded, an interpretation solidified by The Telegraph which writes, without hint of irony:
The audience at the showing was basically adult and they applauded at the end which you often see in children’s movies but rarely in adult films.
The real story is that Gary is a huckster who wins cases in poor, black districts using a combination of racial resentment and homespun black-church preaching to persuade juries to redistribute the wealth from out-of-state big corporations to local knuckleheads. I use the latter term without approbation. Indeed, Gary says as much in his opening trial where he persuades the jury to give his “drunk”, “tanked” “wasted”, “no-good”, “depressed,” “suicidal” client, $75 million dollars for being hit by a truck! Why award damages against the corporation? Because, “they got the bank.” (He adds that his client had a green light–this is obviously a lie. Use your common sense.)
My paper with Helland, Race, Poverty, and American Tort Awards, finds that tort awards during this period were indeed much higher in counties with lots of poverty, especially black poverty. We find, for example, that the average tort award in a county with 0-5% poverty was $398 thousand but rose to a whopping $2.6 million in counties with poverty rates of 35% or greater! The Burial is very open about all of this. The movie goes out of its way to explain, for example, that 2/3rds of the population of Hinds county, the county in which the trial will take place, is black and that is why Willie Gary is hired.
The case on which the movie turns is as absurd as the opening teaser about the drunk, suicidal no-good who collects $75 million. Indeed, the two trials parallel one another. The funeral home conglomerate, the Loewen group, offered to buy three of O’Keefe’s funeral homes but after shaking on a deal they didn’t sign the contract. That’s it. That’s the dispute. The whole premise is bizarre as Loewen could have walked away at any time. Moreover, O’Keefe claims huge damages–$100 million!–when it’s obvious that O’Keefe’s entire failing business isn’t worth anywhere near as much. So why the large claim of damages? Have you not being paying attention? Because the Loewen group, “they got the bank.”
Furthermore, and in parallel with the earlier case, it’s O’Keefe who is the no-gooder. O’Keefe’s business is failing because he has taken money from burial insurance premiums–money that didn’t belong to him and that should have been invested conservatively to pay out awards–and lost it all in a high-risk venture run by a scam artist. Negligence at best and potential fraud at worst. Moreover, in a strange scene motivated by what actually happened, O’Keefe agrees to sell to Loewen only if he gets to keep a monopoly on the burial insurance market. Thus, it’s O’Keefe who is the one scheming to maintain high prices.
Indeed, the whole point of both of Gary’s cases is that he is such a great lawyer that he can win huge awards even for no-good clients. As if this wasn’t obvious enough, there is an extended discussion of Willie Gary’s hero….the great Johnnie Cochran, most famous for getting a murderer set free.
Loewen should have won the case easily on summary judgment but, of course, [spoiler alert!] the charismatic Gary wows the judge and the jury with entirely irrelevant tales of racial resentment and envy. The jury eats it up and reward O’Keefe with $125 million in compensatory damages and $400 million in punitive damages! The awards are entirely without reason or merit. The awards drive the noble Canadians of the Loewen group out of business.
The Burial is a courtroom drama surfaced with only the thinnest of veneers to let the credulous walk away feeling that justice was done. But for anyone with willing eyes, the interplay of racism, poverty, and resentment is truthfully presented and the resulting miscarriage of justice is plain to see. I enjoyed it.
Addendum: My legal commentary pertains to the case as presented in the movie but in that respect the movie hews close to the facts.
Economics, History, Law