The Good: Good message, Excellent acting, Wonderful character development
The Bad: Repetitive, Pacing issues, Somewhat overdone plot
The Basics: Ultimately succeeding as a result of excellent writing on the character end, A Family Thing is a positive film that takes its time to develop, just as relationships do.
My original title for this review was "A Close Call On A Family Thing," but then I began to write what I like about the film. My original thought was that it would be 5 out of 10 and it would be close on whether I recommended the film or not. As I considered the film more, despite its shortcomings, my rating moved up and to a solid recommendation. That is to say that as I began writing my "pros" I understood what I'm always preaching around here a little better as it applied to this film; the most important aspect of an art like film or novels is character. Character makes a production and this piece had it in every single scene.
Apparently a hard to find film A Family Thing opens with the death of Earl Pilcher's mother and the revelation that she was not, in fact, his mother. In fact, this residence of the backwater of Arkansas is rather shocked to find out that he has a half brother in Chicago and that his mother was formerly the family's maid. That, Earl quickly realizes, means she was a Negro and that Earl is, in fact, (despite his skin color) half-black. Upon confirming this with his father, he goes North, finds his half-brother, gets truck stolen and a concussion and ends up rooming with his half-brother and their Aunt T.
Ray Murdock, as it turns out, knew about Earl his whole life and he's lost no sleep over not knowing him. Ray and Earl get off to a rough start which is complicated by Virgil, Ray's son who returns home to find a white man sleeping on the couch where he usually sleeps. He's none too happy about this. Virgil's prejudices against Southerners and whites is instantly evident. The last half of the film is spent reconciling all of the various conflicts that are introduced here.
For the most part, the film does a good job with its resolutions. The characters seem quite real. They have mannerisms, they have backstories that are explored as they become relevant. In short, the characters are vital and everything in the film occurs because of the strength of their character and their own decisions and actions. Everything that does move is done as a result of the characters.
In this instance, the strength of the characters is only enhanced by the quality of the actors. James Earl Jones is magnificent, lending dignity and class to Ray Murdock. His facial expressions and mannerisms add to the words he speaks. He brings character to the role. Robert Duvall is convincing as Earl. The one who steals the scenes and the one to watch is Michael Beach. He's brilliant as Virgil, playing him with depth and a perception of realism. More than the woman who plays Aunt T., he controls the viewer. Excellent acting.
Even the superb performances, though, aren't enough to save this film from some criticism. The middle is plagued by angry reversals where Earl reaches out and is slapped (metaphorically) by Ray and Ray tries to reconcile only to get the cold shoulder. They continue to reverse over and over again, so there's a repetitive factor here. This plagues the film with ruining the rhythm of it. It slows down an already below-paced film.
However, the execution of the final themes of reconciliations and valuing diversity outweigh the problematic aspects. There is a redeeming quality to the film. It may not be particularly entertaining, but it is interesting enough, superbly populated by well-defined characters and astounding acting.
For other films where ethnicity is an important aspect of the plot or character development, please check out my reviews of:
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© 2011, 2007, 2001 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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