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Desson Howe - Weekend section, "A dewy-eyed, but adroitly written saga."

Rita Kempley - Style section,
"An ingratiating comic melodrama."


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'A Family Thing'

Scene from this movie

Robert Duvall plays Earl Pilcher Jr., a color-conscious Arkansan in his late sixties who reads a posthumous letter from his Mama that reveals the true circumstances of his birth—his dad forced himself on the housekeeper. Since Mama and his real mother were good friends, she urges Earl to seek out his half-brother, Raymond (James Earl Jones), a widowed cop living in Chicago with his grown son and his blind Aunt T.

Of course, the first meeting is a sour one, in which Ray tells Earl to get lost. But circumstances inevitably throw them together, and soon they are grousing as amiably as "Grumpy Old Men." -- Rita Kempley Rated R


Director: Richard Pearce
Cast: Robert Duvall; James Earl Jones; Michael Beach; Irma P. Hall
Running Time: 2 hours
Filmographies: Robert Duvall; James Earl Jones






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'A Family Thing': It's an Acting Thing

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
March 29, 1996

There are few finer pleasures than watching Robert Duvall in action. He's a master of precision, a maestro of subtle gesture, the compleat actor. In "A Family Thing," a dewy-eyed, but adroitly written saga, he lays down some of his most breathtaking work.

Duvall's not the only one making impressive music. Performers James Earl Jones, Irma P. Hall, Michael Beach and others play with—and off—each other like spirited jazz musicians. They're more than helped by screenwriters Billy Bob Thornton and Thomas Epperson who set them up beautifully with a rich, surprisingly affecting story.

In rural Arkansas, Earl Pilcher Jr. (Duvall) watches his mother Carrie (Mary Jackson) draw her last agonized breath. But something more devastating than Carrie's death is about to bring Earl to his knees—a letter from his mother that blows a big crater in his life. After reading it, he shares the outrageous revelation with his father, Earl Sr. (James Harrell).

Apparently, Earl Sr. had his way with a black domestic called Willa Mae, who bore a child. After Willa Mae died in childbirth, Carrie adopted the light-skinned child and called him . . . Earl Jr.

"This is a mess," says Earl Jr. shakily to his stone-faced father. "I mean to tell you, this is a mess."

Earl honors his mother's request to look up Raymond, who was Willa Mae's other son, and was last heard of in Chicago. Without telling his wife (Grace Zabriskie) and children, he drives north to meet his black half-brother. But he's not exactly met with open arms. Raymond (Jones), a burly police officer who has known the story his whole life, deeply resents Earl. At a diner, Raymond suddenly bursts into ironic laughter.

"What's so damn funny?" asks Earl.

"How does it feel, Mr. Pilcher?"

"How does what feel?"

"Being colored."

From here on, "A Family Thing" becomes a loose, bittersweet comedy. Earl gets beaten up by car-jackers who take his truck and wallet and is obliged to stay with Raymond. Earl rediscovers himself as he comes to know Raymond, Raymond's irascible son Virgil (Beach) and Raymond's Aunt T. (Hall), both of whom are, after all, family.

As a premise, "A Family Thing" seems hokey, far-fetched and—with the patently white Duvall playing a mixed race character—almost ridiculous. But although the movie loses power in its final sections, the performances, writing and Richard Pearce's direction transform this shaky idea into something rewarding.

The teamwork between Duvall and Jones is tremendous, but the movie is practically stolen by Irma Hall as Aunt T., a slow-moving, blind, but quick-witted, tell-it-like-it-is individual. When she commandeers Earl into taking her to the store, at one point, he testily asks: "What for?" "Coz I'm blind as a bat, that's what for," she retorts.

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Brothers Under Each Others Skin

By Rita Kempley
Washington Post Staff Writer
March 29, 1996

"A Family Thing" took its seed from "Watermelon Man." Like the 1970 tale of a racist's comeuppance, this ingratiating comic melodrama involves a bigot's sudden transformation from Caucasian to African American. Twenty-six years ago Godfrey Cambridge simply scrubbed off his whiteface, but in this observant new film, Robert Duvall's metamorphosis is more than skin deep. It's chromosomal.

Duvall plays Earl Pilcher Jr., a color-conscious Arkansan in his late sixties who suddenly discovers that his birth mother was black and that he has a black half-brother living in Chicago. The potential for hokum is there, but Duvall and co-star James Earl Jones capably avoid the sticky pitfalls of Tom Epperson and Billy Bob Thornton's sugar-cured script.

The story opens with the death of Earl's beloved Mama, who in a posthumous letter reveals the true circumstances of his birth—his dad forced himself on the housekeeper. Since Mama and his real mother were good friends, she urges Earl to seek out his half-brother, Raymond (Jones), a widowed cop living in Chicago with his grown son (Michael Beach) and his blind Aunt T (Irma P. Hall).

Though they are the most unlikely screen kin since Arnold Schwarzenegger claimed Danny DeVito in "Twins," Earl and Ray inevitably develop a close bond. Of course, their first meeting is a sour one, in which Ray tells Earl to get lost. But circumstances inevitably throw them together, and soon they are grousing as amiably as "Grumpy Old Men."

The story is as predictable—and frequently as rambunctious—as that of a buddy movie. The performances, however, are far from routine. Overexposed as spokesmodel for the Yellow Pages, Jones can't quite disappear into his role, but he doesn't overplay its folksiness either. Duvall, who seems to have crawled into his character's soul, gives his most affecting performance since "Tender Mercies."

Despite their best efforts, Hall steals the show as the brothers' hilariously opinionated and outspoken aunt. For her beloved sister's sake, the mule-headed old dear pushes her nephews into conciliation. Effectively thrown back to their boyhoods by the stress of the situation, they try to escape her machinations, but as Aunt T says, "Just because I'm blind doesn't mean I can't see."

Richard Pearce, who directed the civil-rights-themed "The Long Walk Home," is on familiar turf with "A Family Thing," but he takes a much lighter approach to the material. This time around, he avoids the holier-than-thou liberalism that would have sunk this lighthearted brotherly love story.

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