By Edwin Jahiel


Directed by Richard Pearce. Written by Billy Bob Thornton and Tom Epperson. Photography, Fred Murphy. Editing, Mark Warner. Production design Linda DeScenna. Music, Charles Gross. Produced by Robert Duvall, Todd Black, Randa Haines. Cast: Robert Duvall ( Earl), James Earl Jones (Ray), Michael Beach (Virgil), Irma P. Hall (Aunt T.), David Keith (Sonny), Grace Zabriskie (Ruby), Regina Taylor (Ann), Mary Jackson (Carrie), Paula Marshall (Karen), James Harrell (Earl, Sr.),Patrice Pitman Quinn (Willa Mae), et al. A United Artists release. 109 minutes. Rated PG-13.

Do you remember "Pinky" (1949) or the 1934 and 1959 "Imitation of Life," both filmizations of a Fannie Hurst novel? Do you remember what dramas or tragedies resulted in those movies where a black girl passed for white?

We've come a long way since, but not all the way, as "A Family Thing" shows. The film' s acting is unarguably superb. The story is gripping. The direction is warm without corniness, serious without preachiness, theatricality or sensationalism.

Earl Pilcher, Jr. (Robert Duvall) has a small business in his rural Arkansas town. From our brief initial look, the place, though not romanticized, feels like one that must be good to live in, at least if you're white.

Earl's old mother dies, in an unusually realistic scene. A couple of days later Earl is handed a posthumous letter, in which Mrs. Pilcher reveals a big secret. Back in the early Thirties, she was the friend--but only inside the house--of her black domesti c help. Young Willa Mae, who already had a son, one day turned out to be pregnant by Mr. Pilcher. She died giving birth to a very Caucasian-looking boy whom the Pilchers passed as their biological child Earl,Jr.

Now over 60, with a wife, two grownup children, a father whom he employs and treats lovingly, and an essentially uncomplicated life, Earl is stunned. How will this man's heart and mind deal with the revelation?

In her letter, the defunct lady urges him to get to know the black half-brother he never knew he had. The reeling Earl confronts now penitent Earl,Sr. in a scene made all the more effective by its avoidance of high-voltage dramatics. Later, in a fine-tun ed cut, sleepless Earl goes from his bed to his shop's trash can to retrieve the crumpled letter.

With few clues, he abruptly takes off for Chicago in his pickup truck to track down his brother Ray (James Earl Jones), a cop, and succeeds. Following an awkward and far from kiss-kiss reunion (Earl was no surprise to Ray), Earl starts back for Arkansas. But after a bloody mugging and the theft of his truck, he lands in a Chicago emergency ward.

In a plausible development the hospital people contact Ray, deliver the wounded man to the policeman who most reluctantly accepts to look after him for one day. He takes him to his home ("we have a niggertown in the North too"), in which are crowded wido wer Ray's son Virgil (Michael Beach) a city bus driver, and Willa Mae's sister, the now blind Aunt T.(Irma P. Hall).

Ray and Virgil don't exactly warm up to Earl, but Aunt T. does. She is an authentic character, as sharp as a samurai's blade. She cannot see skin color and diferences, dispenses matriarchal authority and wise comments that are deciding factors for future relations.

Expectedly yet fascinatingly, events change the brothers' initial antagonism gradually change to rapprochement and to Earl's tentative understanding of "the others." It's done without the expected clichés, sentimental drivel or cookie-cutter progressions. Instead we get an intelligent, sensitive, believable approach.

Less believable is how the senior Pilcher couple managed to present baby Earl as their own to their small community. But then, I was so engrossed by the film that I may have missed something. I still wonder, though.

There's also the matter of Earl's "whiteness," especially when you think of Duvall in palefaced roles like Tom, the Irish-American Consigliere to the "Godfather"'s Corleone clan. Then again, a geneticist would say that the unusual is not the impossible.

The acting by the Duvall-Jones-Hall trio is right on the button and most moving. Little-familiar Hall is a revelation. The amazing variety of convincing roles Duvall and Jones have held is too rich to list. Let cinephiles check their files.

Here, while ever consistent with their personalities, the three lead portrayals are never obvious, yet they cover a large spectrum of emotions and reactions. A homily delivered by Earl to chip-on-his-shoulder Virgil might have been sententious. It is affe cting instead. Secondary characters are drawn with deft economy.

The credit to the performers ought not to obscure the contribution of the scriptwriter team (their 1962 "One False Move" was excellent) or of director Richard Pearce

Pearce, a cinematographer in major movies ("Woodstock," " Hearts and Minds," etc.), debuted in direction with the marvelous "Heartland." He went on to make, among others, such unusually good films as "Threshold," "Country," (with Jessica Lange), or the li ttle-seen "The Long Walk Home," (Whoopi Goldberg and Sissy Spacek).

He brings to his work his camera experience, an eye for sets and textures and a first-rate selection of scenarios. Above all, this educated Californian (English at Yale, Political Econmics at the New School for Social Research), has genuine perceptions, s ympathy and empathy for his subjects.

"A Family Thing" is beautifully detailed, pulls no punches, doesn't impose political correctness. Chicago blacks are Earl's hijackers and muggers. Later, others try the same stunt on Ray, in a delicious scene reminiscent of "Lethal Weapon." (The movie is not without humor that comes naturally).

In the black area, Earl witnesses affluence and misery as he attempts drunkenly to begin coming to terms with his negritude. Ray's apartment is so tight that surly Virgil, resenting Earl being given "my couch," has to sleep inside the bathtub. Yet Ray dri ves a shiny late-model car, which makes the home situation less a comment on income than on housing and ghettoizing.

Virgil has two cute daughters whom he loves, but these live with their mother. In a structure of discreet yet telling parallels, a train passes by Earl's Arkansas house and an El by Ray's. Not too incidentally either, we get a depressing view of big city hospital overcrowding.

There's no true closure to this film. It is after the brothers visit their mother's grave and the movie ends that the really hard part for Earl will come. In Chicago, he was in a foreign culture. Adapting was relatively easy. In Arkansas he'll have to dea l with family and friends within their (and his) own rural culture. Who knows what will develop. Perhaps a sequel?

The movie is easily as touching as "Mr. Holland's Opus." Neither feelgood nor uplifting, it is stirring and thought-provoking. All this without your ever looking at your watch while the film is running.

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