A FAMILY THING is a poignant and beautifully life affirming film.
It tells the story of the reunion of two older half-brothers, one black
and one of a mixed race who always thought he was white. The film
deals both with racial tolerance and with the larger meaning of life.
It is a little film without any pretensions to be more that it is, and
it has three outstanding performances in it. If you are lucky enough
to walk into its door at the local multiplex, you will find you have
discovered a small cinematic gem.
A FAMILY THING starts off in a little town in Arkansas, but that
part is actually filmed in Tennessee. When I first saw the garage that
Earl Pilcher, Jr., hereafter called simply Earl (Robert Duvall) and his
father Earl Sr. (James Harrell) own in a small Southern town, I thought
it was Shugart's Garage from my old hometown of Garland, Texas. It
wasn't, but everything from the sets (Linda DeScenna) to the dialog is
authentic, right down to Earl saying, "yes, sir" to his father and
"yes, ma'am" to the telephone operator. Even the traditional southern
inherent dislike of potential carpetbaggers is displayed in Earl Sr.'s
complaining to his son about a customer, "I've never seen a damn Yankee
yet that could operate more than a wheelbarrow."
At the beginning of the picture Earl's mama dies and leaves him a
sealed letter revealing the family secret that his father raped a black
girl and that he is the result of that rape. Earl's real mama died in
childbirth, and his adoptive mama raised Earl as her own. In the
letter his adoptive mama tells Earl to go to Chicago and look up his
completely black half brother, Raymond "Ray" Lee Murdock (James Earl
Jones) who is a policeman. Earl does this in his pickup truck which
turns into a classic fish out of water sequence.
After meeting Ray, Earl ends up having to spend the night in his
tiny place along with his old and blind Aunt T (Irma P. Hall) and Ray's
son Virgil (Michael Beach). Ray and Earl want to part company quickly.
That Ray lives near a bad part of town further complicates things.
The show has two stars and a scene stealer, Irma P. Hall, who I
think is a shoe-in for a best supporting actress nomination for her
bossy, funny, and upbeat role as Aunt T. She tells Earl to get salted
butter because, "Don't know why anybody'd eat unsalted butter. Might
as well eat Vaseline. Got about as much flavor." She is also wise
telling them, "Nobody ever knows what it's like for somebody else.
That's always the problem."
In another incredible performance by James Earl Jones, he plays
Ray as a reserved man with deep feelings, but one that is able to laugh
at others and at himself. He tells Earl, "I guess everyone is entitled
to make a complete and utter fool of himself every now and then."
Jones's character overflows with humanity.
In this ensemble cast, Duvall's acting is the great, although I
would rank it third here. He gets off many a good line. One of my
favorites has him telling Virgil about playing football in school, "I
used to play a little ball. I was small, but I made up for it by being
slow." As easily the slowest player on a high school football team
that won two AAAA state championships, this line really hit home. Earl
advises Virgil another time that, "Being happy ain't nothin' more than
havin' something to look forward to." Another piece of advice well
The movie shows Earl as having definite racial prejudices, but
milder than you might guess. He even sinks to using the N word twice
which, to be fair, is a lot less that the blacks use it in the film.
The script (Billy Bob Thornton and Tom Epperson) is one of the delights
of A FAMILY THING. The dialog is smart and the characters are not
drawn as cliches as it would have been easy to do. In a plot where
little happens, there are many surprises, scary moments, and many
unpredictable twists. At its best, as when Earl and Ray share an
intimate discussion about their roles in the Korean War, the story
resonates with a beautiful harmony. The direction by Richard Pearce
has great attention to detail. Watch, for example, the body language
in the way Earl and Ray sit together on the couch and on the bed.
The movie's ending is set up perfectly, but I would have preferred
them to end a couple of minutes sooner and let our imaginations take
over after they set it up. The rich music by Charles Gross provides
just the right nostalgic atmosphere.
A FAMILY THING runs just about right at 1:49. It is correctly
rated PG-13 for a small amount of violence and some bad language. I
think the film would be fine for kids over say 8 or 9 if they are
interested in the subject. I loved the film and see no reason why you
wouldn't too. I recommend the picture and give it ***.
Copyright © 1996 Steve Rhodes