In Amazon Prime Video’s legal drama film ‘The Burial,’ Mame Downes leads the defense of Raymond “Ray” Loewen’s Loewen Group against Jeremiah O’Keefe and his attorney Willie E. Gary in court. Mame is a highly competitive lawyer who topped her class at Howard University. When Willie’s self-confidence makes him wage a war that’s near impossible to win in court, Mame displays her skills and cleverness to astound the former. As the film progresses, Willie and Mame’s battle against one another gets heated, making the courtroom drama highly engaging. Although the film is inspired by a true story, Mame Downes is not based on a real lawyer. Why did director Maggie Betts conceive a fictional character? Here’s everything you need to know about her!
Maggie Betts’ Creation
Even though ‘The Burial’ is based on a real case and most of the principal characters have real-life counterparts, director and co-writer Maggie Betts did take some liberties while conceiving the same. One of her additions is Mame, an outrightly fictional character. “I wanted [it] so that none of the Black characters had a need for white people in their life. Completely self-sufficient. Mame works for Ray Loewen, but she’s on her own path and she doesn’t need [him],” Betts told Time about the inspiration behind creating the character.
Through Mame, Betts successfully incorporated a strong and determined Black woman in the narrative of the case, which was mostly an all-male affair. Loewen’s team of attorneys did have Black lawyers but they were men. Betts turned the lead defense lawyer into a Black woman to explore the ambitions and will of African American women of the time, who challenged their established male counterparts without fear. Even when Willie uses his fame and charisma to gain an upper hand over Mame in the film, the latter retaliates well, which shocks the famed trial lawyer.
The real-life personality who comes close to Mame is Richard H. Sinkfield, who was hired by Ray Loewen despite having a strong attorney lineup at his disposal, similar to the addition of Mame in the movie. Sinkfield, one of the founding partners of Rogers & Hardin, came to Mississippi from Atlanta, Georgia. Like Mame’s efforts to disregard Jeremiah O’Keefe’s familial values, Sinkfield disregarded the familial warmth of the O’Keefe family. “The only purpose for which this kind of exhibition is being offered is to try to incur sympathy and favor out of the jury,” he said during the trial.
Sinkfield also guided Loewen before the latter took the witness stand in the case. In the movie, Mame is joined by some of the most potent Black lawyers available in the region to fight for Loewen, which was the case in reality as well. Loewen added two Black lawyers to his team; “one of these lawyers was an elected state senator, the other a state representative and chairman of the black congressional caucus,” as per Jonathan Harr’s The New Yorker article, which serves as the source text of the film.
Hal Dockins, one of the lawyers of O’Keefe, “viewed the arrival of the new lawyers as racial pandering of the most blatant sort. ‘We’ve been out-blacked,’ he told O’Keefe. ‘Loewen is stacking the deck with black politicians,’” reads Harr’s article. The presence of these lawyers led Dockins to suggest Willie to his client, which paved the way for the latter’s victorious prosecution. Although she is fictional, Mame and her team can be seen as a fictionalized version of Sinkfield and other lawyers who defended Loewen in court.