Rights of Way

Amy Taubin on Nothing But a Man

Michael Roemer, Nothing But a Man, 1964, 35 mm, black-and-white, 95 minutes. Left and right: Duff Anderson and Josie (Ivan Dixon and Abbey Lincoln).

ONE OF THE GREAT American independent films and one of the great films about how racism defines African American masculinity, Nothing But a Man (1964) is as convincing and emotionally agonizing as it was when I first saw it at the New York Film Festival in 1964. Formally, the film absorbed the Neorealism that had dominated European cinema, particularly in Italy, since World War II, and which continues to energize emerging national cinemas through what now is dubbed “observational cinema.” The subject matter and point of view that made it seem “foreign” when it was first released—especially in relation to social uplift movies about racial difference—still testifies to the ugliest aspect of America, the racism that was exposed by the civil rights movement and which has never been “cured,” as the political discourse of the recent election proved.

Nothing But a Man is the work of two white filmmakers, Michael Roemer and Robert Young, who met at Harvard in the late 1940s. Roemer directed, Young wrote the script and was in charge of the cinematography, and both coproduced the film along with Robert Rubin. It was made on the cheap, but its spare visual beauty is the result of Young’s sensitivity and skill and also the support of DuArt Film Laboratories, which was run by Young’s brother Irwin Young and which was a crucial resource in the development of the American Independent film movement. When Nothing But a Man was restored, rereleased, and added to the Library of Congress’s National Film registry in 1993, Roemer commented that had there been black fiction-film directors of the caliber of Spike Lee working in the mid-’60s, he would not have directed the script, and that the aspects of black culture he failed to capture because he hadn’t experienced them from the inside—the humor, for one thing—bothered him every time he looked at the movie.

No matter, since the galvanizing, unsparing performance by Ivan Dixon more than compensates for any distance Roemer felt. Dixon plays Duff Anderson, a railroad worker who leaves his relatively well-paid and protected union job when he falls in love with Josie Dawson (Abbey Lincoln), a college-educated preacher’s daughter who teaches in a segregated primary school in a small Alabama town near Birmingham. Despite the opposition of Josie’s parents and the anger Duff feels toward her father, who “stoops” to every white man from the school principal to drunken dropouts and teaches his congregation to do likewise, Duff and Josie marry, and Josie soon becomes pregnant. Duff gets a job at a sawmill, but, accused of being a union agitator, he’s fired and blackballed from every decently paying job in town. Unable to earn a living and unwilling to turn a deaf ear to insults and threats, he takes out his rage on his wife.

Roemer’s most dramatic directorial choice is to shoot close and keep the narrative largely within Duff’s point of view. Locked into his subjectivity, one feels in one’s own gut the humiliating and enraging experience of being forced to deny your humanity for the sake of preserving your life. What is most powerful about the script and Dixon’s tight-lipped performance is that it makes us aware that Duff’s rage cuts two ways. His fury is directed both at the racist power structure and at himself for being less than a man. The film is complicated, being as much a father-son story—Duff has an alcoholic dad and a young son living separately in hopeless poverty in Birmingham—as it is a story about a marriage that may or may not be able to withstand the economic blight and emotional devastation of racism.

In Birmingham, at the same time as Nothing But a Man was made, Martin Luther King Jr., having delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech in Washington, still marches. The first orders for school desegregation have incited a wave of white violence, including the bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, in which four little girls are killed. Roemer and Young made a deliberate decision to keep all this out of the movie. The impact of civil rights will not reach small towns in the South like the one where Duff and Josie live for many years. Indeed you could have taken a camera to Birmingham in 1964, just as the filmmakers did, and seen no sign that “change is gonna come.” The film is toughest for not holding out that hope to Duff, although small seeds have been planted, perhaps through his experience as a black unionized worker. It is left for us to hope that in the future they will grow.

Nothing But a Man runs through Thursday, November 15 at Film Forum in New York. Filmmaker Michael Roemer will introduce the 7:30 PM show on Friday, November 9.