A Family Thing

Film Review by Jeffrey Winters

Lately, I’ve been walking out of the theater with a stale after-taste because so many of the films are not uplifting, well done, or have anything significant to say about being human.

A FAMILY THING was enjoyable, uplifting, beautifully acted and written. The film lingered in my mind and in conversation afterwards. The story was able to convey the emotions of human dignity in overcoming conflict to build important relationships. This film was simple and eloquent.

The movie begins with Earl, a white southern man skillfully played by Robert Duvall (The Godfather, Rambling Rose). Several days after his mother dies, she leaves him a letter explaining how he was really born to a “colored,” woman who died after childbirth. This woman was a friend who had an affair with Duvall’s real father. When she died, the infant (Earl) was brought up as if his he was the biological son to his mother and father.

But in reality she tells Earl he is part black.

He reads this letter in shock. Finally, he shakes off his paralysis because the last request in her letter was for him to go to Chicago and find his half brother, a black man.

We watch how he handles this strange twist in his life with an emotional intensity that only outstanding writing and acting could pull off. We get into his character and feel what he must go through in a very absorbing manner.

In order for Duvall to experience contrast and confusion, it was critical for him to play off of other actors who could interact with genuine feelings, yet not blow out of proportion his dilemma.

James Earl Jones as Ray (The Great White Hope, Cry The Beloved Country), plays his older brother with tremendous believability. As a child, he was present when the birth took place and his mother died. Since that fateful day he always knew his half brother would appear. He has been harboring a hatred for Duvall’s father. (Incidentally, there is a magnificent scene of that birth shown in sepia tone). Jones relishes in the bitter irony of a southern redneck finding out he has “nigger,” in him.

The conflict between them was sad, funny and tender. Yet the film required another ingredient to put it into the same quality of well written human drama as The Shawshank Redemption and Fried Green Tomatoes.

That ingredient was Irma P. Hall as the blind Aunt T. who was helping her sister at the birth. She has always loved that “little white boy,” and her feelings haven’t changed. She lives with James Earl Jones and stares at him with her huge dark sunglasses listening to the half-brothers squabble.

Aunt T. catches every nuance of emotion until she decides she has heard enough bickering. Like a benevolent wise old parent, she begins teaching the two men the history of their mother and the importance of real family values. She communicates with love, strength, wisdom, humor and cryptic anger.

Irma P. Hall should be up for next years academy awards for an incredibly robust and meaningful performance. She was the glue for the two men, and more important, she made their story plausible and real by being metaphorically blind to their differences.

Another reason A Family Thing worked so well was because the filmmakers relied on good old fashioned storytelling rather then Spike Lee type pedantic race education. This does not mean race as an issue was disregarded. It couldn’t be ignored because it was the catalyst for the plot. Dick Pearce directed (Country, The Long Walk Home), with deliberate emphasis on the human emotions. He says, “A Family Thing is not a message movie.”

This is a terrific relationship film in which the writing, acting, direction and atmosphere come together and provide great entertainment with a deep appreciation for basic human dignity. I strongly recommend you see it.