Movie Reviews

Movie Review: A Family Thing – Things Are Not Always Black and White

Written by Billy Bob Thornton and Tom Epperson
Directed by Richard Pearce

Billy Bob Thornton is one of those Hollywood people that makes me scratch my head. He can have flashes of absolute brilliance and moments of behavior that are so outrageous he makes me scratch my head. I also don’t understand the attraction so many beautiful women feel for him, but that’s neither here nor there.

A Family Thing was one of those moments of brilliance. Thornton was a writer of the screenplay, along with Tom Epperson, of a story that is all the more believable in light of the revelations in recent years that some of Thomas Jefferson’s descendants by his black slave, Sally Hemmings, had no idea they were of African-American descent.

Robert Duvall is Earl Pilcher Jr. He’s sixty years old and pretty set in his ways. He’s also something of a racist. He thought he knew what his life was about, but after his mother, Carrie, dies the Pastor pays him a visit and presents him with a letter. It seems his mother wrote it years before with instructions for it to be delivered to Earl after she’d passed on.

In the letter, Carrie tells him that Earl was actually the product of an affair between his father and Willa Mae, a woman who worked for them and whom she considered her friend. That woman was black at a time when friendships didn’t exist between black and white. Since Earl looked white, and Willa Mae (his mother) died during childbirth, Carrie took him in and raised him as her own. His father (portrayed by James Harrell) confirms what Carrie wrote.

Willa Mae had another son who was older. Carrie’s dying wish is that Earl will look him up and know him as a brother. This sends Earl off on a quest for Ray Murdock (portrayed by James Earl Jones) somewhere in the Chicago area. Little is known about Ray, but Earl is determined to find him. He located him working for the police department in the Mayor’s Office.

Ray: How does it feel Mister Pilcher?
Earl: How does what feel?
Ray: Being colored?

When Earl is the victim of a carjacking and gets beaten up as well, the hospital calls Ray after finding his name in his pocket. Ray doesn’t want to take Earl home with him, but he has no choice since Earl can’t travel or fall asleep due to a concussion. Ray lives with his “Aunt T” (portrayed by Irma P. Hall) and his son Virgil (portrayed by Michael Beach).

This forces them to spend time together and get to know each other. When Earl spends time alone with Aunt T, she introduces him as her nephew, “Ray’s brother.” She’s the link to the past and what happened all those years ago. Earl’s racism seeps through, though, and threatens to break the bit of a bond they’ve managed to forge despite the problems from the past.

What could have easily been a disaster in the hands of lesser actors is instead quite good. Jones and Duvall are seasoned enough that their characters have an edge to them. Both are portrayed as being set in their ways and reluctant to grow. Duvall must have Earl change all his perceptions of who he thought he was for all these years. His comfort zone of knowing his place in the world is shattered, especially in what his views have been. Duvall keeps Earl vacillating from being somewhat confused and trying to reject what his brain is reluctant to process as the truth to curiosity winning out as to what his heritage and origins actually are. It’s a story that resonates with many of us who are adopted – just how much of who we are comes from our genetics versus our upbringing?

Jones is confronting a ghost from the past he never thought he would have to. He has Ray having left that place behind him and even the half-brother he knew he had with no regrets. Yet he is now confronting those ghosts and having to deal with feelings rooted in his past that he thought were long dead and buried. He has no inane curiosity about his brother – he knew where he was and never went back to find him. They don’t share a bond of being raised together. Yet there is something that keeps Ray from writing Earl off completely, and some of that has to do with Aunt T.

Where the film succeeds as well is where it stops. Earl has ventured into Ray’s life, but we don’t see what happens when Ray comes back to the small town to show his place in Earl’s life. That is left to the imagination, and it’s better that way. There are so many variables that it’s something left hanging, for each viewer to put their own spin on what happens next in the story.

My only complaint is that in some places A Family Thing drags quite a bit. It’s character-driven and while the dialogue is quite good most of the time, there are times when I found myself checking the running time to see how much longer until the end. That’s never a good thing. However, the overall story is well worth weathering the extremely slow pacing of the film.

A Family Thing is a sleeper film that is a good testament to just how thin the line between black and white in America is. It makes a point that who we are is more the product of how we are raised and what our experiences are. At the same time, it isn’t overt with its message and will be something people who experience the nature versus nurture debate in their own life will identify with.

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