A Family Thing

"Movie Magazine International" Review

(Air Date: Week Of 4/3/96)

By John A. Lavin

It's easy to dismiss movies that seem to reach for the "tear-jerker" angle upon first glance, especially given all the advance hype that movie studios barrage the public with. Luckily, I didn't see anything about director Richard Pearce's film "A Family Thing", which means that I couldn't have been happier to discover that "A Family Thing" is not only a well-acted, well-crafted piece of work, but it also has more to say about race relations in the United States than practically any other film I've seen since "The Defiant Ones".

Robert Duvall is the star of "A Family Thing", and he plays Earl Pilcher, a sixty something southerner who discovers a shocking secret about his family origins. Following the death of his mother, Earl receives a letter, explaining that he's not actually her son, but is the son of a black woman. Being as white as a snowdrift, Earl doubts his mom's sanity, but his ashamed father confirms Earl's worst fears. He is a half-breed, and has a brother living in Chicago.

So, Earl hops in his pick-up and makes his way to the big city, where he encounters his brother Raymond, played by James Earl Jones. Raymond is a cop, and he shares the distaste that Earl feels towards him. But, Raymond accepts Earl into his home, and the story really begins.

Most of the film is spent showing the schism between blacks and whites in America, but it's done with a cleverness and a subtlety that's quite surprising. The standard cliches are here, but they're reworked until they ring true, creating a movie that is filled with moments that seem to be not only plausible, but likely. Scenes of urban blacks looking at Earl like he's nothing but a country cracker offset Earl's own sense of racial superiority. As Earl looks back, one gets the sense that a change is beginning to dawn on him. He thinks he's white, but of course, he's not what he thinks he is.

Ultimately, though, the performances here keep "A Family Thing" from turning into preachy melodrama. Robert Duvall and James Earl Jones work together perfectly, fighting and glaring at each other with restrained fury, and Irma P. Hall turns in a terrific job as wise Aunt T, the only person who seems to know just how meaningless skin color should be. Best of all, there are no miracle transformations taking place. The characters act like real people, and that's a blessing that makes "A Family Thing" well worth a look.

Copyright 1996 John A. Lavin

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