Nothing But a Man ★★★★

Duff Anderson (Ivan Dixon) is a mere laborer on the railroad section gang in early 1960’s Alabama. But he’s a remarkable man, we think, on the merits of his jolly, good-natured, courteous nature that disallows disingenuous elements to get him down. At least he remains that way in our eyes until we see his stubborn side. He will court the virtuous preacher’s daughter, Josie (Abbey Lincoln), even when he is warned he is not accomplished enough to uphold a commitment to truly take care of her. What comes to head, in the black & white neorealist drama Nothing But a Man, is a man falling apart at the seams after a series of troubles. He tries to form solidarity between his brothers at work after a rude white co-worker at a construction job diminishes them. And later on, he makes the mistake of having too much dignity when a white man refers to him as “boy.” There’s quite a bit of that, but there’s a lot of N-words that casually roll off the tongue, too. What the film teaches us is the horror of a good black man required to swallow his pride in the racist south, where things are said to have gotten better in the last few years – even if they haven’t. I’ve seen this film twice now over the years, and in my mind I’ve paired it along to “If Beale Street Could Talk.” Duff doesn’t get railroaded in this film like Fonny does in the Barry Jenkins film. But it goes to show how [wrongfully] easy the setbacks are for a black man who dares to say the wrong things to “superior” white people, which snowballs into a distancing with the woman he loves. This is a raw, naturalistic film that clobbers its black man over a number of hardships that should be unnecessary. The pressures of life in the ’60’s, ultimately, are what tragically forces him to be a person he is not.

Michael Roemer is the director, and for years I stupidly thought he was a black filmmaker up until last year somebody showed to me he is not. Roemer is a Jew who at 11-years old was hauled on the Kindertransports only to narrowly escape Nazi Germany after that; in adulthood he travelled with co-writer and collaborator Robert M. Young to the South to interview black families to understand their adversities. The two artists / documentarians were persecuted by local whites at every town they visited and claimed that many white locals threatened to poison their food. In Mississippi, they met a young couple and upon that interview they returned to New York City where the quickly written screenplay was given birth. It would become an obscure film, having difficulty picking up distribution because it did not fit into typical life-affirming conventions, only to come to life again in 1993 when a proper re-release gave way to reputable liberation.

I share now my own quote by social critic James Baldwin:

“Most people are not naturally reflective any more than they are naturally malicious, and the white man prefers to keep the black man at a certain human remove because it is easier for him thus to preserve his simplicity and avoid being called to account for crimes committed by his forefathers, or his neighbors.”

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