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A Family Thing.

Richard Pearce's "A Family Thing" aims at something more than amusement but has a harder time maintaining a coherent tone. It starts as melodrama: A dying mother in small-town Arkansas leaves behind a letter telling her son, Earl (Robert Duvall), that he was only her adopted son. His real mother, a young, black housekeeper, was raped by his father more than 60 years ago and died giving birth to Earl. He also has an older black brother who lives in Chicago. The letter asks him to "find your brother and know him as your family."

Instinctively, we resist the message that's coming: Blacks and whites are indeed brothers. But even with Duvall reading the letter slowly, brokenly, to a mostly silent father, it's a somewhat embarrassing scene. Not that rape of black women by white males isn't credible, but wouldn't it be better if Earl stumbled on the news, gradually piecing together bits of evidence, and if his father were already dead?

Duvall so thoroughly inhabits the redneck role he's playing, however, that we come to understand that Earl is both a bigot and a decent man. Upset and confused, he tells his wife he's going fishing but sets out for Chicago in his pickup truck. After he locates his brother, Raymond (James Earl Jones), a security guard, the movie grows steadily more powerful, avoiding easy answers and cheap melodrama.

Understandably, Ray is reluctant to make any but the most perfunctory contact with Earl. Only later can he admit that he has long thought of killing Earl's father. There is no false eloquence in the scenes between Duvall and Jones. Duvall's awkward pauses betray his inner upheaval. Jones shows a hard-earned pride and self-possession.

A plot contrivance facilitates a further stage of exploration: Earl is beaten up by black thugs and the police, finding a slip of paper with Ray's name on it, summon him to the hospital. The doctor says Earl can,t travel for 24 hours, so Ray is forced to take him home for the night.

Even though it's clear that the movie is headed toward the brothers, mutual acceptance, Duvall and Jones work so well together that we become deeply involved. It also helps that the process isn't made too easy or the understanding complete: When Earl wanders into a bar and boozily intrudes on a black family celebration, he ends up lecturing them on the evils of racial quotas. In addition, Ray's grown-up son, who is living with his father, resents Earl's presence in the house.

The spirit of reconciliation is embodied in the figure of blind Auntie T (Irma P. Hall), who almost steals the movie from Duvall and Jones with her down-to-earth humanity and no-nonsense goodness. She recalls the details of Earl's birth in a dramatic flashback filmed in sepia, gives him an old photo of his mother, and only regrets that she cannot see her sister's "other" son.

"A Family Thing" fails to suggest the ongoing racism experienced by Ray and his son in Chicago. The relationship between Earl's adoptive and real mothers is idealized, but the movie is very much worth seeing. The acting by Duvall, Jones and Hall is so good that the message of brotherhood overcomes its aesthetic limitations.
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Author:Cunneen, Joseph
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Article Type:Movie Review
Date:May 31, 1996
Words:540
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