In the courtroom drama “The Burial,”Jamie Foxx stars as Willie E. Gary, a larger-than-life attorney who fought for justice against massive corporations. The film centers on a real-life David and Goliath moment in Gary’s career: In 1995, he took down the Loewen Group, a corporation with more than 700 funeral homes, on behalf of a small-scale Mississippi funeral business owner.
Though Gary, now 76, has won some of the largest jury awards and settlements in U.S. history, he’s quick to credit his deep-rooted faith for influencing the trajectory of his storied career.
“I grew up in a church, my brother was my pastor,” he told The Christian Post. “I just believe in my faith. It’s nothing fancy or anything; it's just believing that you didn't get to where you are by yourself. Somebody prayed for you. My grandmother used to say, ‘You didn't get there because you're so powerful.’”
“The Burial,” an Amazon Studios film, tells the story of how Gary, a black attorney, helped white Biloxi resident Jeremiah O'Keefe, 72, win a $500 million jury verdict after his small-town funeral business was targeted by a Ray Loewen and his Canadian funeral home corporation that was expanding into the U.S.
Starring Foxx, Tommy Lee Jones, Jurnee Smollett and Alan Ruck, the film released to limited theaters on Oct. 6 and debuts on Prime Video Oct 13. The film is rated R for some language.
Set in the mid-'90s, “The Burial” opens with Gary preaching to a congregation: “When God calls, you have to answer,” he declares. And that belief, he told CP, is what has guided his approach to justice.
“I hope this movie gives America a chance to see how significant God can be in your life,” Gary told CP. “You can make a difference. You can turn things around. I had to pray a lot of days because we were losing the case. But you know, man can do something, but God can do everything, at all times. That's just the way I looked at it. If it's a success, it's because we prayed.”
“The Burial,” based on a 1999 article in The New Yorker magazine, shows not only how Gary won an unlikely victory that ultimately bankrupted the corrupt Loewen Group, but rose out of poverty as a sharecropper’s son to become a self-made, successful attorney. By the time O’Keefe hired Gary, he’d become known as “The Giant Killer” for winning multi-million-dollar jury awards. He'd go on to win cases against major companies including Disney, Coca-Cola, Motorola and others.
Though not the focal point of “The Burial,” Gary's journey in the Deep South during segregation touches on the challenges he faced, both subtle and blatant, as he battled nationally known corporations and powerful business leaders.
“I grew up in the Deep South; segregated schools, churches, restaurants, and I don't get a kick out of talking about it because I think we’ve got to look ahead, put some of the tough times we've had behind us and reach out for something better,” Gary said.
“There’s a Gospel song that says, ‘black and white together/ we shall overcome.’ That’s my thinking then, that’s my thinking now. We're all in this together. And I hope this movie will show that a lot of people, both black and whites, died to make America what it is, to make America be all that it can be. And we made a difference. We're not where we want to be or should be, but we're making a difference.”
Gary said that he and O’Keefe, who died in 2016, had a unique bond, cutting across racial lines in an era of deep-seated racial tension.
“When [O’Keefe] first hired us in Jackson, Mississippi, people said, ‘Who is this black lawyer coming into town represent a rich white man?’” Gary recalled. “But Jerry didn't even think about it. It didn't didn't matter to him. He didn't care. He just said, ‘He’s about helping people.’ I miss him. I miss him a whole lot.”
Addressing the ever-evolving battle between small businesses and large corporations, Gary said he’s hopeful about the future: “I think better days are coming; we’ve made a lot of progress,” he said.
He challenged the next generation, particularly budding lawyers, to always strive for the best and to be an advocate for those less fortunate. He referenced Matthew 25:40: “The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’”
“Just remember, when you're down — and you're going to be down — you're never out,” Gary stressed. “Dream big dreams. Specifically, I'd say to young people, you don't have the right to not be the best that you can be. You don't have the right to do any less than your best. Because at the end of the day, you will be judged, not so much on what you’ve done for yourself, but what have you done for the least of these?
I don't know about you, but I want my headstone to say that I tried to help somebody, I tried to make a difference. I challenged my friends and colleagues to do the same. Make a difference. Do something to help somebody that's less fortunate than you are. Give it a try. It comes back to you.”
“The Burial” debuts on Prime Video on Oct. 13.