Movies We Like
Nothing But a Man
"They don't sound human, do they?" - Duff Anderson
When I was a kid, movies took up a big slice of my daily routine. I was an introverted introvert with nary a friend to call my own. Pop's wasn't around so that left my mom, sister and our RCA television to raise me. I was devouring movies at such an alarming rate my mother began to worry. But that's what mothers do; they worry about their children - especially African mothers. (How will she ever get a grandchild from someone who prays to a TV set?) By the time I was seventeen, I was a self-proclaimed film buff. (Not like I had anything else going for me.) I openly mocked peers with my cinema prowess, brandishing pithy one-liners and pop culture references to put them in their place. But one of those underlings asked an interesting question: "What was my favorite film on African American life?" It made me ponder how much Black cinema I've actually seen. The answer startled me. Now, outside of John Singleton, the Hughes Brothers, some Blaxploitation movies and the occasional Spike Lee joint, there weren't that many I was exposed to. I blamed it on the fact that compared to others, African American movies were far and few between. Heck, I saw more movies from Alfred Hitchcock than all the directors I named above combined. But that was lazy and actually quite inaccurate. There was plenty of gold to be had. So I started to dig. Nothing But A Man was one of those gems I discovered. Now this may come off as hyperbolical fluff but I honestly believe this is not only one of the best films on African American life, but American life, period. I never liked the distinction between the two anyway. It's rare to see a film on this subject handled with such tact and elegance - a quiet, sensitive piece with the delicacy and finesse of a Swiss watch.
Michael Roemer made Nothing But a Man in 1964. Being Jewish and raised in Nazi Germany, it's safe to say Roemer knew a thing or two about injustice. He traveled down to the American South to see how people of color were being treated. He lived with multiple black families and was eventually treated as an outcast by some of the neighboring whites, a few even threatening to poison him. This gave him the heft needed to properly tell this story.
The film introduces us to Duff Anderson (Ivan Dixon), a proud black man who toils away on railroads throughout America. Duff lives a simple and carefree existence. He drinks and gambles with his friends, not to mention all the ladies seem to buy what he's selling. One night, he makes an impromptu visit to a church function where he meets Josie Dawson (Abbey Lincoln), a well-mannered schoolteacher and the daughter of the town's preacher. The two fall in love, much to the chagrin of Josie's father and Duff's rail mates. Josie's father saw Duff as "common" and Duff's friends saw Josie as an uppity kept woman who wants the same thing as all woman do - money. On their first date, two white men confront the lovebirds. Tensions rise as they harass and provoke the two. They leave once they realize who Josie's father is. Duff doesn't handle it well since his nomadic existence gave him this illusion of freedom.
The confrontation brings him back to reality. But Duff has other things on his mind as well. He has a son who he abandoned with a woman he doesn't know. While visiting the boy, he meets his own father for the first time as an adult. A drunk, crippled man who's as mean and hot as the alcohol on his breath. The old man has a woman he berates, demeans and constantly mistreats, even in public. For Duff, it was like looking into a soothsayer's orb. This forces him to make a rash decision and settle down with Josie. Of course things are never as simple as that. There's no white picket fence without hardship, especially when it's built on an unsteady foundation.
Themes of racial injustice, societal roles, spousal abuse, and destructive cycles are addressed with quiet aplomb. Fathers abandoning their kids and those kids becoming their fathers. It also proposes some interesting questions about what it is to be a man. Do those who get a glimpse of their possible futures detour destiny or steer right towards it? And when does self-worth turn into blinding pride?
Nothing But a Man was beautifully shot with a documentary realism by Robert M. Young who also brought us the equally impressive Mexican film Alambrista! Just like the actors, the stunning black and white photography was natural and restrained. I can't rave enough about the performances here. It boggles the mind how this film wasn't the talk of the world. Each gesture had such subtlety and nuance it was breathtaking. Ivan Dixon does an impressive job as the always smirking and strong Duff. Jazz singer great Abbey Lincoln almost steals the show as the genteel but soulful Josie. There are moments where she looks cold and uncaring but upon deeper examination, the cracks of her dignified demeanor expose a vulnerable, heartbroken woman. She constantly tries to convince Duff to retrieve his lost son with disastrous results; but she keeps at it. It’s almost as if she thinks by saving his son she'll also be rescuing Duff, who’s just as lost as the abandoned boy. She's his wife, mother and at times... verbal punching bag. When it's all said and done, mothers worry about their kids, even when they're not their own. Topping it all off is an incredible soundtrack featuring The Miracles and Martha and The Vandellas, which makes this one-of-a-kind film soar even higher. Ultimately, this is about a prideful man full of pain and stubbornness. A man whose idea of strength lies in an archaic view of what it means. Not just a black man or a white man - simply a man.