[13 October 2004]
For roughly its first half hour, Michael Roemer’s 1964 film Nothing But a Man—newly available on DVD for the first time—fully lives up to its reputation as a “classic,” conceptually interesting but formally a bit stale. The tale is a familiar one for American moviegoers; a devil-may-care young man is drawn to a grounded young woman, they part, he realizes he prefers stability to freedom, they reconcile. The interest for viewers today as well as 40 years ago lies in the protagonists’ skin color: they are Black, as is most everyone else on screen. And they live in the Deep South of the early 1960s, where the still-operative system of peonage conspired to keep African Americans enslaved economically and beaten down emotionally.
Like most Black-themed films of the 1960s, in the period before the blaxploitation boom, Nothing But a Man was directed and written and produced by Whites: Roemer and Robert Young, two Jewish filmmakers with documentary backgrounds and Harvard degrees. Borrowing liberally from the already worn conventions of American cinema verité (as featured in the film and television work of Robert Drew and Richard Leacock), they give over the task of narrative exposition to an early series of scenes that record work- and leisure-time environments in gritty detail. Most of the film was shot in New Jersey and not Alabama, where the story appears to be set, but no matter; the production team studiously researched Southern life and Jim Crow custom, talking to and staying with Black families throughout the South for an entire year. (Their entrée into this world where few Whites trod: a letter of introduction from Roy Wilkins.)
As a means of vouching for the picture’s authenticity, Young’s camera—he doubled as the director of photography, while Roemer primarily worked with the actors—frequently holds tight on the painstakingly recreated details of this highly segregated milieu, like the juke joint where Duff Anderson (Ivan Dixon) and his co-workers unwind after a day of heavy labor on the railroad; here, even the pock-marked prostitute gets a close-up. (In a recent interview included on the DVD, Roemer says his decision to feature Black actors in tight framings whenever possible was a reaction to Hollywood’s fear of African American faces dominating the screen.) Even more “real” is the church revival meeting across town that same night, where Duff first encounters Josie (Abbey Lincoln), the pretty preacher’s daughter; the congregation’s “hell-howling”—Duff’s derisive term—is recorded in classic verité style: shallow focus, handheld camera, direct sound.
Roemer and Young’s lack of experience with the fictional mode is most evident in these early scenes. The impoverished setting of the gandydancers’ bunkhouse seems dead-on, right down to the game of checkers played with Coca-Cola bottle caps. But the small talk that takes place within this realm of studied naturalism, among Duff and his pals Frankie (Leonard Parker) and Jocko (Yaphet Kotto), is stilted. And Duff and Josie’s meeting-cute is awkwardly written, featuring lines of the “Baby, where’d you learn to kiss?” variety. The acting styles of the two leads don’t quite mesh in this scene; Dixon delivers his lines with the slickness of a sitcom regular (which he would become, with the 1965 premiere of Hogan’s Heroes, in which he played Sergeant Kinchloe). It isn’t until Duff grows more sullen and withdrawn that Dixon the actor becomes more expressive.
By contrast, Lincoln delivers in Nothing But a Man that rarest of achievements for singers-turned-actors: an unassuming, utterly unaffected, yet wholly believable performance. Able to convey reservoirs of feeling via the most mundane of mannerisms, she constructs an inner emotional life for a character written as something of a cipher; Josie loves Duff despite her father’s stern disapproval, but all she can offer as her motive is the observation that most of the men she dated before Duff were “kind of sad.” When Duff grows unbearable in his own right, she seems oddly paralyzed. Indeed, her story is put on hold while Roemer and Young try and figure out how to bring Duff’s character arc to a hopeful resolution.
Thankfully, the filmmakers do have a good idea of how to accomplish this. One-third of the way into the film’s running time, they contrive to have Duff—on a day trip to Birmingham to visit his illegitimate four-year-old son—unexpectedly meet up with his father. And with the appearance of the broken-down alcoholic Will Anderson (Julius Harris) and his younger, hardened female companion Lee (the always reliable Gloria Foster), Nothing But a Man‘s emotional core is revealed.
What was previously the story of a young couple coping with married life, set against an unforgiving backdrop of economic deprivation and social degradation, becomes a story about a father’s sins visited upon the son. Again, a familiar tale, yet one that comes alive due to the socio-economic context in which these characters dwell (Will’s Birmingham boarding-house room is almost impossibly slovenly), but also Harris’ indelible performance as a Black man utterly defeated by the system. Unable to hold a job—the almost sole measure of one’s worth for all of the film’s male characters—because of a factory injury, Will withdraws from responsibility, leaving his son and caretaker/companion to pick up the pieces when he finally drinks himself into a coma.
A registered nurse without prior acting experience and encouraged to audition for the filmmakers by Charles Gordone (future Pulitzer winner for the play No Place to Be Somebody), Harris so completely embodies the role of Will—in his whipped posture, in his 100-yard stare, in the graveyard tone of his voice—that he pulls together the film’s melodramatic storyline with the naturalist aesthetic imposed upon it. Like Lincoln, Harris should have had a film career that matched his considerable talent, but the paucity of supporting roles for Black character actors doomed him to relative obscurity; probably few buffs have seen him outside of his teeth-flashing turn as a villain in Live and Let Die (1973). A charming (though regrettably brief) new interview with Harris, now apparently confined to a nursing home, is included among the DVD’s extras, along with newly recorded comments by Dixon, Lincoln, and Roemer and Young. (The other bonus attraction, a segment from an upcoming documentary on Lincoln, is—like the woman herself—utterly beguiling.)
The encounter with his father brings Duff’s quandary into sharp, existential relief. Forced to quit the railroad after he marries Josie, Duff drifts through a series of lower-paying jobs. But his refusal to “act the nigger” in order to get along results in his blacklisting from the local mills just as he receives news of Josie’s pregnancy. From here parallels to his father escalate with tragic force: walking out on his wife and kid(s), wallowing in self-pity and impotent rage. Though nothing happens to suggest that Duff will find meaningful, satisfying work once he returns home, or even that he will remain with his family, his expression, “I feel so free inside,” in the film’s closing scene seems justified. This justification is rooted in the maturity Dixon (finally) finds in the character during Duff’s last exchange with Lee—the two of them framed against a remote cityscape following Will’s desultory funeral service—and in his powerful reconciliations with his son James and, ultimately, a shattered Josie.
The performers carry the burden of communicating a point of view; the mise-en-scène is meticulous but neutral, and the editing and camerawork rarely contribute to our understanding of a character or of the potentially fatal parallels that exist between Will and Duff. In this sense, The Cool World (1964)—the other well-remembered entry in the modest cycle of independently-produced, Black-oriented pictures made during the peak years of the Civil Rights Movement, and an intriguing companion piece to the Roemer film—may be easier for contemporary audiences to understand. As realized by longtime avant-gardist Shirley Clarke, The Cool World, a coming-of-age story about a Harlem street gang, vigorously reflects her quirky, jazz-inflected creative vision. If Clarke is, to paraphrase André Bazin, a filmmaker who puts her faith in the plasticity of the image, Roemer puts his faith in reality, abdicating moral comment and refusing to direct viewers to conclusions.
The absence of any explicit mention of the burgeoning Black protest movement in the South drew a lot of critical comment in 1964. White critics for mainstream publications (Life, Newsweek, Saturday Review), grateful for its seemingly even-handed tone, commended Nothing But a Man‘s “universality.” (Indeed, Roemer did nothing to discourage such a reading; even in the pages of Ebony, he characterized his picture as “the story of many average young couples.”) For some in the African American press, this lack of specificity was cause for condemnation, for it let racist Whites off easy.
But focusing on the real economic effects of racism on people rather than dramatizing flashpoints of the Civil Rights struggle or depicting White brutality is not a mistake; in fact, this is where the film’s strength lies as a statement on race. In his book Interpreting the Moving Image theorist Noël Carroll links the Roemer picture to the Clarke film, labeling them both as works “underwritten by the hope that the documentation and explanation of injustice will move people of good will to eradicate it.” But Roemer seems less naïve than Clarke, whose portrait is characterized by unrelieved misery; in the end her hero, Duke Custis, loses both his lover and his freedom. Roemer proves much more adept than Clarke in elucidating the causes and effects of the “race problem” without tipping over into nihilism. Nothing But a Man remains a fascinating and uplifting document because its makers understood that, as worldviews, candor and hope are not mutually exclusive.