Dir. Richard Pearce. USA. 1995

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While some may think a white child with a black parent is a rare occurrence, a recent story revealed that the mother of six of Thomas Jefferson’s children was a black slave by the name of Sally Hemming. Richard Pearce’s A Family Thing is a modern day fictional example of such racial mixing. The film is a comedy but has serious overtones in its thoughtful look at America’s racial divide. When 60-year-old Earl Pilcher’s elderly mother Carrie dies, she leaves him a letter that the local pastor (Nathan Lee Lewis) delivers to him after her death. The Arkansas equipment rental manager is shocked to read in the letter that his real mother was Willa Mae (Patrice Pittman Quinn), an African-American who was impregnated by his father (James N. Harrell).

"Nobody knew,” the letter says, “because you came up white. Willie Mae died having you. I was right there." Needless to say, this piece of information does not sit well with Earl who was raised by the Pilchers and never questioned his heritage. To compound Earl’s confusion and disbelief, he also finds out that he has an African-American brother, Ray Murdoch (James Earl Jones), who lives in Chicago. When Mrs. Pilcher implores Earl to find his brother, Piclher suddenly takes off to Chicago in his old pickup truck without telling his family the reason for his departure. In Chicago, he discovers that his brother Ray is a cop who works in the office of Chicago’s mayor, that he knows all about him, and is not happy about seeing his brother again, blaming him for his mother’s death.

Finding himself in a dangerous part of town, Earl is held up, mugged, and has his truck stolen. After getting out of the hospital and needing a place to stay, he is reluctantly put up by his brother who lives in a flat with his son Virgil (Michael Beach) and his elderly, blind Aunt T (Irma P. Hall) who brought him up. Even though Ray tries to convince her that Pilcher is an old Army friend, the wise old woman isn’t buying. "Stop BS-ing me,” she says “Earl Pilcher -- I know all about your sorry half-black a -- .” Once they get over the shock of recognition, the plot unfolds in a predictable but highly entertaining manner as the brothers discover they have more in common than they thought.

Earl gets drunk and winds up sleeping under a bridge. Virgil reveals that he had a serious leg injury that curtailed a promising football career and listens to some upbeat suggestions from his uncle. There is also a wonderful scene with Earl and his blind aunt shopping at a supermarket where she has memorized the inventory, and a moving flashback to Earl’s birth. Though both Duvall and Jones are accomplished veteran actors, Hall steals the show and makes the film special. Old Aunt T. sums up the film’s message when she says, "I don't have the blessing of being able to separate people out by looking at them no more." That kind of colorblindness is a blessing more people ought to have.


Howard Schumann

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