In this family drama, a white Southerner discovers that his family history isn't what he thought it was -- with the fact that he's half-black only one of his many surprises. Earl Pilcher, Jr. (Robert Duvall) runs a gas station in Arkansas; he's a typical middle-aged Southern man who likes his pickup truck and loves his momma. Shortly after his mother's death, he receives some very unexpected news; she wasn't really his mother after all. It seems that years ago, Earl Sr. (James N. Harrell) raped the family's African-American maid, Willie Mae, who nine months later died while giving birth to Earl Jr. To avoid further scandal, Mrs. Pilcher simply raised Earl Jr. as her own. While the family has kept the matter a secret all these years, Earl Jr. has a half-brother living in Chicago, and it was his mother's wish that the two should some day meet and become friends. Earl travels to Chicago and tracks down Ray Murdock (James Earl Jones), a veteran police officer and Willie Mae's other son. Earl Jr. quickly learns that Ray has little interest in getting to know him better; he knows all the facts behind the matter, and he's always blamed Earl for the death of his mother. However, Earl Jr. isn't used to life in a big city up north, and after he's mugged and carjacked, Ray grudgingly takes in his half-brother, letting him stay in the home he shares with his son Virgil (Michael Beach) and Aunt T. (Irma P. Hall), who raised Ray as a boy. A Family Thing was written by Billy Bob Thornton shortly before his breakthrough as writer, director, and star of Sling Blade.
by Mark Deming synopsis