Getting under the Skin 'A Family Thing' tackles racial prejudice without preaching or glamour. It feels real and that feels good.

March 29, 1996|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,SUN FILM CRITIC

Somewhere in one of his novels, Richard Condon uses this epigraph from "The Keener's Manual": "I am you and you are me, and what have we done to each other?"

It doesn't matter that there isn't a "Keener's Manual" and that Condon just made it up, any more than it matters that "The Family Thing," which argues the same point, was just made up by two Arkansas screenwriters, Billy Bob Thornton and Tom Epperson.

What matters is that what has been made up has the irrepressible feel of truth.

The story treats race as a myth and argues dramatically that after four centuries of cohabiting this continent, the fact of color is largely whimsy; under the skin, we are so intermingled, so entwined, we've shared so much blood and sweat, that we are all brothers -- literally in this case, and metaphorically in all other 00 cases.

What's so good about the film, however, is that the notion isn't presented as a bromide, a feel-good Rolaid from a prissy moralist holier-than-thouing it from behind a bully pulpit. Instead, it's offered in all its thorny, prickly human splendor, in a sprawling city where racial prejudice is often bald and ugly, and harsh words -- and sometimes flashing fists -- are about to break out at any second.

It so happens that Thornton and Epperson have plowed this ground before, in their fine thriller "One False Move." That film, like this one, took off from the ancient entwinings of peoples who live under the impression that they must be separate, and deny their togetherness.

But "The Family Thing" re-imagines the material as kitchen-sink drama, about long-lost brothers squabbling their way toward some sort of provisional human understanding, imperfect and stained with regret and angry words, but nevertheless profoundly noble.

Robert Duvall, never finer, plays Earl Pilcher Jr., a wiry rural Southerner who is both tough of spirit and conventional of thought. No blessed liberal, he's a cantankerous, obstreperous, fractious, and fulminating squirrel of a man, full of the usual prejudices that burn vividly behind his shrewd but not brilliant eyes. Can that be a red sunburn on the back of his neck? Why, what would you call such a man?

Imagine, however, Earl's surprise when the fine lady he thought was his mama tells him on her deathbed that his actual mama, who died in childbirth, was an African-American woman.

And imagine, furthermore, the impact of the news that he has a brother living up in Chicago -- a black brother, that is. Her dying request: that Earl meet his brother and mend all the broken fences.

Thus Earl, with his down-home ways, goes up north, in search of the man who turns out to be a Chicago policeman named Ray Murdock, with a giant personality, as played by James Earl Jones.

In a less rigorous film, the two might embrace as brothers from the start. But Jones' Ray is in no rush to embrace this white guy who claims kinship, and his first impulse is simple: Who needs it? But Earl, as naive about city life as he is about the complexities he himself represents, keeps coming at Ray or getting himself placed in front of him in acts that seem like pure passive-aggression.

Ultimately, Ray brings Earl home -- Earl has been beaten by black car thieves and has to wait until his truck is recovered -- where the Southerner quickly falls under the blind but wise eye of Aunt T., played with the wisdom of Solomon and the feistiness of Whoopi by Irma P. Hall.

It may be that under the cold light of day, Aunt T. is a sentimental indulgence. She's really a deux ex machina, a blind seer sent to dispense wisdom and serenity; one suspects that she's hopelessly sentimentalized, where nothing else in the movie is. But you won't notice at the time, because Hall is so incandescent, lighting the frame to its farthest edges with her energy.

Meanwhile, Ray and Earl pick at each other, like two old junkyard dogs trying to get a nose into the other's hindquarters. Some critics have noted the wit of the exchanges, but I much preferred a more solemn trading of Korean War reminiscences by the two. The memories have the jagged, unglamorous feel of reality.

Other ripples intrude in the household: Earl's prickliness keeps getting him into fights (that he always loses) with others, usually black, and there are tensions with Ray's son a bus driver (played by Michael Beach) whose bitterness over a lost athletic career corrodes his spirit. Meanwhile, both Ray and Earl struggle to understand the forgotten play of events that made them blood kin, though of such different hues.

"A Family Thing" is exactly that: a thing. No other word exists to communicate its odd combination of clumsiness and yearning, the awkwardness that its characters feel toward each other, its willingness to forgive each man his nasty hatreds and ignorance, and its insistence that we'd better learn to be together because, apart, we'll kill each other.

And, possibly it's meant to recall one other famous usage of the word "thing," from Emily Dickinson: that hope is a thing with feathers.

'A Family Thing'

Starring James Earl Jones and Robert Duvall

Directed by Richard Pearce

Released by United Artists

Rated PG-13 (mild profanity)

Sun score ***

Pub Date:

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