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If you’re a White person in the South, how would you feel about being a defendant facing an all-Black jury? Or a Black person facing an all-White jury? Would you feel a twinge of traditional stereotypes?
The acclaimed 2023 film THE BURIAL is based on the 1995 true story of an aging white man Joseph O’Keefe (played by Tommy Lee Jones) who owned several funeral homes in his area of Mississippi—homes he had established as honest, caring resources to leave as a legacy for his large family. His problem was that he could no longer afford to keep all his funeral homes, so reluctantly, he was forced to sell a few. He signed a contract with The Loewen Group, a huge city funeral home company, knowing the price they agreed to pay would sustain his business. However, The Loewen Group didn’t sign the contract they negotiated nor did they pay him. They waited for him to suffer foreclosure on all his properties as they knew he would. O’Keefe declared the Loewen Group should be held accountable for their wrongdoing, even when his attorney advised that he had no chance of winning a law suit and would lose everything he owned when he lost.
Behind the blatant cold-hearted corruption of The Loewen Group was a nasty story of greed, racism, and callousness that was gradually revealed in court. Perhaps as consequential, however, were the leftover bonds of traditional racism that had to be broken for Joseph (Jerry) O’Keefe to have a chance to win his case.
O’Keefe was aided by Hal Dockins who happened to be his son’s friend—an astute young Black lawyer who told O’Keefe he couldn’t persuade a local Black jury with a White lawyer. They wouldn’t trust him. Willie E. Gary (played by Jamie Foxx) was a personal injury attorney, known for his flamboyant and unerringly effective style that had made him rich. He wasn’t experienced with contract law. He told O’Keefe he didn’t represent White people—even O’Keefe who had stood up for Black constituents against the Ku Klux Klan when he was in politics. If he signed on, Gary would be forced to work with O’Keefe’s longtime, well-meaning lawyer from a traditional White Southern family. Dockins managed to persuade Gary his career would benefit by his leading the legal team. Meanwhile, The Loewen Group hired an expert Black contract attorney and law firm partner famed for her intelligence and ruthless style.
The reality revealed that racism is based on both hubris and tradition, not actual differences. Abandoning his pride, Gary came to view O’Keefe as a good man who was a worthy friend. In return, O’Keefe never lost his respect and affection for Gary, even when he seemed to ruin the case. They remained friends for years thereafter. The female defense attorney had to admit she had been arguing against her heart, because that was her job.
Recognizing the old tapes that run in our heads—opinions handed down from our family and friends—is never easy. When we see that diverse peoples are not the simple stereotypes we were fed any more than we’re certainly defined by what our families thought we were or wanted us to be—those realizations are liberating. We’re free to make friends wherever we find them and to be who we gradually discover we are.
(BTW: Hooray! My fourth novel RETURN TICKET centered on a man who experienced a Near Death Experience and then witnessed a hate crime is available for pre-order on Amazon.com today! Both ebook and print version are scheduled to be distributed November 13, 2023. Look, Mom, I’m a writer!)