A Family Thing (1996) - Plot Summary Poster


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  • Earl Pilcher, Jr., runs an equipment rental outfit in Arkansas, lives with his wife and kids and parents, and rarely takes off his gimme cap. His mother dies, leaving a letter explaining he's not her natural son, but the son of a black woman who died in childbirth. Plus, he has a half-brother Ray, in Chicago, she wants him to visit. Earl makes the trip, initially receiving a cold welcome from Ray and Ray's son, Virgil. His birth mother's sister, Aunt T., an aged and blind matriarch, takes Earl in tow and insists that the family open up to him.


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  • Fifty-something Arkansas redneck Earl Pilcher Jr., learning that his biological mother was black and that his half brother, Ray lives in Chicago, drives his pickup to the windy city to meet Ray. Ray, who knows something about Earl's birth and other family, is not pleased to see Earl. Ray blames Earl's white racist father for his mother's death, and he harbors the same hatred for Earl himself.

    After a brief and unpleasant encounter with Ray, Earl is about to head home when his pickup is carjacked and he gets a nasty head wound from the jackers. Ray, a Chicago cop, reluctantly brings Earl to his home from the hospital because the doctor says Earl needs to stay awake and be watched, and that he should not travel for several days. Ray makes up a story about Earl and he being Korean war comrades for his Auntie T., the sister of Earl's and Ray's mother, Willa Mae, who raised Ray after Willa Mae died giving birth to Earl. But Auntie T., who is blind, sees right through Ray's story and knows who Earl is.

    When Ray's son, Virgil, returns home from his job as a city transit bus driver and finds Earl sleeping on the couch where Virgil usually sleeps, he demands to know who this white man is and why he's there. Then Auntie T. intervenes and insists that Ray tell Virgil the truth. Overhearing the quarrel, Earl decides to leave and find a motel. Ray goes after him and the two argue, then wrestle and scuffle in a vacant lot. The tussle almost turns out all right until Earl says he's not afraid of tangling "with you or any other nigger on the street." Although he makes a half-hearted, lame apology immediately after saying it, Ray is furious and drives away, telling Earl, "If you need any more help, don't call me. I'm through helping you!" That night Earl, after getting drunk and being thrown out of a bar, sleeps under a bridge where a bunch of homeless people are camped. Ray, regretting leaving Earl, and urged by Auntie T., goes looking for Earl but doesn't find him.

    He puts in a call to the police dispatcher asking that as a favor to him the cops keep an eye out for Earl. In the morning Virgil takes the call that Earl has been found. Virgil's ex-wife, Ann, brings Virgil's two daughters, Kindra and Danielle, over, and all seven members of the extended family go on a picnic. There Earl learns that Virgil, who had a promising future in football and started with Ohio State, in his freshman year destroyed his knee and the promise of the career he had longed for.

    Later Earl has a heart-to-heart talk with Virgil, telling him he needs to find something to look forward to, that he has an ex-wife who's a good woman and two beautiful daughters. At first resistant to even listening to Earl, Virgil takes what Earl says to heart. Back home, Auntie T. gives Earl a photo of his mama, and tells both Earl and Ray the story of what happened the night Earl was born. She tells Ray he took his newborn baby brother in his arms and said, "This is my baby." The next day, after Ray takes Earl to the police-impound lot to get back his stolen truck (which has been recovered little damaged except for a few bullet holes resulting from a gun battle the thieves had with police while using the truck in a bank robbery) the two brothers drive to Arkansas together in Earl's truck to visit their mother's grave.

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