Nothing But a Man, Michael Roemer
Still courtesy of Criterion

‘Nothing But a Man’ Is an Unflinching Drama of Marriage and Racism

Nothing But a Man is about battling discrimination on an uneven playing field but also about tenaciously preserving friendships and families.

Nothing But a Man
Michael Roemer
20 February 2024

Nothing But a Man, director Michael Roemer’s sobering look at systemic racism in 1960s America, is a quietly bold venture into a kind of cinema that makes its impression through a series of stark images often seen in Italian neorealist works. Roemer’s film is undeniably American – the airs and soils of its scenery are rooted forever in the gothic firmament of Richard Wright and William Faulkner’s South. But the film is stylistically fashioned by a scope first envisaged by a doyen like Visconti, whose unsympathetic portrayals of Italian working-class life brought to the screen a certain vision that forced upon viewers the plainness and simplicity of everyday life.

Roemer manages an equally unflinching stretch of unadulterated drama, direct in its ugliness and sweetness and stitched together with the kind of exactitude practiced by his cinematic forebears. Nothing But a Man, which Roemer co-wrote with Robert M. Young, was the filmmaker’s first film, but his hand betrays nothing in the way of a novice. Carefully considering the story and its motions, he places nuance on the slightest and most delicate gestures.

Nothing But a Man is a film whose story can be seen in the faces of its characters. Duff Anderson, a young Black man struggling to secure work in small-town Alabama, summons many transformations in this narrative through the subtle inflections of his hands, face, and voice.

Making a reasonable income as a railroad worker, Duff (Ivan Dixon, of TV’s Hogan’s Heroes fame) is content, if a little stifled and bored with his day-to-day life. Eyeing schoolteacher Josie (jazz singer Abby Lincoln), Duff decides to broaden his activities beyond his job and nights out with his co-worker friends. Josie, a quiet woman whose silence conceals diamond-clear wisdom, agrees to go out with Duff because she believes there is more to him than any other man she’s met in her hometown.

At first, the dating is casual. Then the idea of marriage comes up – something Josie’s father (Stanley Green), the local preacher, doesn’t approve of, as he doesn’t believe that Duff can care for his daughter financially or emotionally.

Duff and Josie eventually do marry, but Duff has a history complicated by his estranged father, a drunk living with his much younger girlfriend, and the fact that Duff himself already has a young son he abandoned years before. The marriage begins well, and the two get on lovingly. But with the inevitable circumstances of racism, Duff finds himself dismissed from two jobs – one in which he suggests his fellow Black workers resist the open discrimination on the work premises, and yet another, working at a gas station, where he is harassed by many white customers.

Duff’s unsteady employment, his decision against having a baby with Josie, and refusing any financial contributions from his wife seriously strain his marriage. His inability to meaningfully connect with his father (Julius Harris as Will Anderson) once he has located him further troubles the waters. Duff, now at a crossroads, seeks to set things right. 

Roemer’s limpid gaze captures the small-town life of a young Black couple with bruising sincerity. Despite the attempts to do away with florid poetry in the storytelling, the filmmaker evinces true lyricism from these ill-starred characters, who fight their circumstances earnestly and determinedly. What we once knew of Duff and Josie, their genial optimism and self-assurance, begins to deteriorate before us. Nothing But a Man is about battling discrimination on an uneven playing field, yes, but it is also about tenaciously preserving the kind of faith that forms friendships and families.

Duff and Josie’s wisdom and percipience are displayed poignantly in their sometimes silent and complicit gestures with one another. In one scene, Duff and Josie hang their wash on the line one night while they affectionately playfight around the yard. The neighboring Black couple soon draws their attention with their bickering, which sends the husband out of the house. Later that night in bed, Duff, reflecting on his neighbors’ fight, draws uncomfortable parallels to his own life, seeing the fight as a harbinger of things to come.

Josie is often aware of the possibility of impending doom in their marriage, as we can guess from the placid but knowing look on her face. She very soothingly dismisses any grievances Duff carries to placate him. Both parties are cognizant of how the systemic racism that lives and circulates in small-town Alabama brews around them like a storm – and they are doubly aware of how that storm will infiltrate and affect their home life and the bonds that hold them together.

Duff’s struggles for acceptance and equality are inextricable from his trials with marriage; what cannot be reconciled in his turmoil with employment is transferred to the conjugal quandaries he shares with his wife. This may be true of people of all races, but Roemer pointedly encapsulates the Black communities’ struggles in a world that is always small and still shrinking as a result of the deep-rooted racialism in the American South of the 1960s, where your hands are your only worth in work if you are a person of color.

Criterion’s release of Nothing But a Man offers a pristine and sharp transfer, expressing the full monochromatic range of the film’s palette to render the black-and-white picture full of texture and gradation. Being that this is a talky film, the audio is captured nicely in a dynamic that tonally articulates the human voice – from shouts to whispers. Supplements include interview features with the director and the cast and an essay booklet written by film critic Gene Seymour. Optional English subtitles are also available on the release.    

The performances here are natural and true, and each actor’s sincere delivery ensures that our emotional engagement with the film is well-earned. Nothing But a Man is an uncomfortable and unromantic look at Black life just at the end of segregation (the film was released the year the Civil Rights Act of 1964 came into effect). It at once commands and rewards our engagement with its clear-eyed storytelling of the real struggles and joys of human life.

RATING 8 / 10