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Originally overlooked, this picture enjoyed a well-received revival in the
early '90s. It is a beautifully crafted snapshot in
time providing a human dimension to the issues driving the civil rights
movement. Both the interior and location shots are
characterized by fluid camera work and a remarkable naturalism. The story
is unsentimental in portraying some of the
negative aspects of black social pathology that persist to this day. Film
buffs will delight in seeing Yaphet Kotto in one of his
early roles. Ultimately uplifting, this film deserves it's place in the history of black cinem
Memorable and poignant, Nothing But a Man is one of the glories of independent film; groundbreaking rather than earth shattering, its refusal to sentimentalize or overstate demonstrates true integrity. The film apprehends the simple existence of an ordinary couple in difficult circumstance, and the performances of Ivan Dixon and lovely jazz singer Abbey Lincoln are superbly naturalistic, and a well chosen and evocative supporting cast lends absolute credibility. The direction, editing, and cinematography are all fine, and the dialog is simply and beautifully convincing. Don't miss this rarely shown and extraordinarily rewarding film that, along with Point Blank, Pretty Poison, Rachel,Rachel, The Naked Kiss, Night of the Living Dead, Lolita,Rosemary's Baby,and They Shoot Horses, Don't They?, remains one of the absolutes of 60's American cinema. The multi-talented Ivan Dixon directed The Spook Who Sat By the Door(73) and was on the 60's TV series Hogan"s Heroes.
Even though I was very young when they made this movie I remember it as
though it was made yesterday.
You see my father worked on this movie setting up the locations, and so I witnessed the making of this movie. You could tell then that this was one movie that would last through the ages it is timeless. Even though it is dated the issues it takes on are still with us today. I would recommend this movie to everyone. The issues it dealt with are still with us today. So please watch this movie and see what has changed and what had not changed with our world today. Too many people do not believe the conditions that Blacks had to face 40 years ago. And that some of those same conditions exist today as well. By the way the cat that got a box put over it was my grandmothers. The cat was not hurt, just well fed.
Director/CoScriptor Michael Roemer is responsible for the overall look
and feel of this sensitive drama. Part social commentary, this film
depicts a touching, often sad portrait of Americana during a
challenging historical period.
Heading the talented cast is Ivan Dixon as Duff, who nicely underplays his role, letting his expression emerge from within. Singer Abbey Lincoln is seen in a nice dramatic turn as his girlfriend turned wife, Josie. Julius Harris renders a moving performance as Duff's spent father.
Robert M. Young's atmospheric black and white cinematography is most striking. Having received excellent critical notices, the film apparently never found a wide audience, and has become a "forgotten gem." Fortunately, it's on DVD to be appreciated by a new generation--who will be educated as well.
In the early 1960's during the unfolding of the civil rights movement,
when Martin Luther King marched on Washington, when three northern
civil rights workers were murdered in the south, and when four children
died in a Birmingham church bombing, Michael Roemer and Robert Young,
two Jewish guys from Harvard, headed south and crafted, in the opinion
of many, the most authentic film ever made of the black experience in
America. Although racial relations have since altered, the film depicts
the essence of racism, including the subtle and less than subtle forms
of oppression still present in President Obama's America.
Roemer and Young have expressed some embarrassment at the naiveté and pure chutzpah they demonstrated in their attempt to make a film that truly represented the black experience. (The term "African-American" was not in vogue at the time.) Yet they insist that in the early 1960's, no one else was doing it. Today, they say, it would be "unnecessary", if not impossible, for whites to make the film. Perhaps the fact that director Roemer grew up in Nazi Germany and at age 10 was witness to the destruction of his grandfather's family store on "Kristalnacht" gave him the chops to understand oppression.
Few involved in the making of the film suspected they were making a film that would join Citizen Kane and Casablanca as one of American "classics" on the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress.
Set in early 1960's Alabama, it tells the story of Duff Anderson, played by Ivan Dixon, a proud black man who won't submit to his expected role. It explores the devastating impact of racism on his working life, his marriage, and his dignity. There is no bloodshed, but the threat of violence is always present. We are told that a lynching took place in the small town only 8 years before. The threats are as subtle as whites pulling into a gas station and asking attendant Duff for "38-cents worth of gas, and mind you don't make it 39." Or when a white supervisor, making a lame joke at which Duff refuses to laugh, says: "What's a-matter, boy, you don't think that's funny?" The everyday intimidation is humiliating enough, but the primary impact is economic. Duff won't allow his pride to be violated. "I don't get on so well in most places," he tells Josie, the preacher's daughter played by Abbey Lincoln. He isn't a political militant; for him it is personal. When workers are exploited, he doesn't have an agenda mapped out by a union organizer, he simply wonders aloud to his fellow workers why they don't "stick together" to make reasonable demands. Of course he is then labeled a trouble maker.
Critics loved the movie, but if universally praised, it was and still is rarely seen. A 40th Anniversary special edition DVD was released in 2004. It shows to best advantage the stunning black and white high- contrast low-light style of co-writer Young, who also doubled as cameraman due to an absurdly limited budget. The early Motown soundtrack, whose rights the fledgling filmmakers somehow managed to secure, contributes to the mood; performers include The Marvelettes, "Little" Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, Martha and the Vandellas, and others who later became household names. The script, penned by Roemer and Young, is remarkably understated. Emotions boil under subdued, almost perfunctory dialogue. Viewers feel the action; it never clobbers them over the head.
But the film wouldn't be the same without Dixon and Lincoln, who are stellar in their powerhouse performances as Duff and Josie, the couple struggling for dignity in a racist world. As they tell us years later, the actors play themselves. Dixon IS Duff, Lincoln IS Josie. This is the story of their own lives.
Be sure to watch the extra features in the 40th year edition. It is a privilege to see and hear Dixon, Lincoln, and Julius Harris (who plays Will, Duff's alcoholic father), then in their 70's and 80's, talk about the film they made 40 years earlier. Fortunately for us, the interviews of the actors came in time; sadly, all three have since died. There is also a 30 minute unscripted discussion between Roemer and Young in which they tell the story of their experience in researching and making the film, and their feelings about it 40 years later. This is a rare peek into the chaotic craft of film-making.
Abbey Lincoln is better known as a jazz vocalist than an actress. In her remarkable interview, she believes that family is the salvation for blacks. In the film, fatherhood takes the thematic center stage, as personified by Duff's father Will, and by Duff's illegitimate son. "A man who doesn't take care of his children is nobody," Lincoln says. Her interview is a monologue, more poetry than prose, more sung than spoken. "Where are the African Gods?" she wails. "We don't know our names we live without our ancestors...Where are the African Gods who will save us from this misery and shame? Where are the African Gods who live and set us free?" She tearfully proposes the answer: "WE are the African Gods, you and me." The African Gods have been stolen. It is Duff and Josie who must set themselves free.
Abbey Lincoln's tears in the interview, like Josie's in the film, are no act. And when the script calls for Duff to push Josie to the floor in a frustrated rage, concerned director Roemer offers to cheat: "I can fake the fall," Roemer says he told Lincoln. He recalls her response: "I'm going to take that fall for all the black women." The fall is one of those classic moments, like so many others in the film, that emotionally freezes the viewer, and remains etched in our memory.
Nothing But a Man (1964) was co-written and directed by Michael Roemer.
It's one of the defining films about race relations in the South as the
civil rights movement was in high gear, bringing about the end of
centuries of abuse by Whites of African-Americans.
This movie takes place in a very rural region in the deep South. Although people--both Black and White--are aware of the civil rights movement, it really hasn't taken hold here. For example, the schools are still segregated. The Superintendent of Schools (White, naturally), is pleased to announce that they're going to build a new school. It will surely be a great improvement over the old school, but it will still be segregated--for Blacks only.
Ivan Dixon plays Duff Anderson, an intelligent, capable, and hard-working railroad worker. These railroad jobs were considered very desirable, because the workers were unionized, the pay was good, and White people basically left the workers alone. Of course, the work was physically demanding, but conditions were not brutal. The drawback was that the workers moved from site to site. It was virtually impossible to have a wife and family. You grew old with an ever-shifting group of friends, moving from town to town and from bar to bar in the evenings.
Duff meets Josie, played wonderfully by Abbey Lincoln. She's a college graduate, a teacher, and the minister's daughter. Normally, Josie would be out of Duff's league as a potential spouse. However, there aren't too many men who are in Josie's league, and she herself, recognizes something special in Duff. He's intelligent, strong, and honestly loves her.
The problem--in this context--is that Duff isn't willing to compromise. He will maintain his dignity despite the wall of segregation that surrounds him. He won't back off from a fight. His attitude--admirable to us, but not to the people around him--causes him to lose his job, and eventually to be blacklisted. His lack of work leads to anger and aggression, directed as much to Josie as to the people who are causing the basic problem.
This isn't always an easy movie to watch, but it's well-crafted and important for everyone to see. We saw the film at the Dryden Theatre in Rochester as part of the wonderful Labor Film Series. It was shown in a new, pristine 35mm print, which was a treat. However, it's a powerful and important movie, and it's worth seeing in any format that's available. Find it and see it.
A rootless young track worker (Ivan Dixon) finds what he didn't know he
needed when he meets a young teacher (Abbey Lincoln). Conflicted by
past choices and examples, romance and responsibility begin a period of
growth, change and understanding. Life does not play easy with the
young couple, especially life in the American south at the beginning of
the Civil Rights Movement.
A lovingly crafted film by Michael Roemer and Robert Young with a naturalistic and documentary feel. Specific to its time and place, yet universal in the undeniable truth that humans can but react to how they are treated. Outstanding American classic.
What a genuine find this obscure 1964 film is. In the midst of Sidney
Poitier's breakthrough as a mainstream leading man of the big studios,
director Michael Roemer made a groundbreaking independent film that
fully captured the black experience at the dawn of the civil rights
movement without exploiting the controversial subject or introducing a
non-threatening component that would have made the story more palatable
for white audiences. The latter was especially the case in Poitier's
biggest movies at the time like "Lilies of the Field" and "Guess Who's
Coming to Dinner" where he played variations on the over-idealized
black man, a point made ironic by the fact that the legendary actor
turned down the lead role in this film. In a perceptive screenplay
co-written by Roemer and Robert M. Young, the protagonist, Duff
Anderson, is anything but idealized. He is a laborer who suffers as
much from his own self-loathing as he does from the deeply ingrained
racism surrounding him.
In early 1960's Birmingham, Alabama, Duff is an itinerant worker, a member of a section team for the railroad company. At a church social one evening, he meets Josie Dawson, a well-educated schoolteacher who happens to be the minister's daughter. In spite of her father's disapproval, the two quietly fall in love and get married. They face one hardship after another as he tries to find stable work while dealing with a troubled past which includes an estranged, embittered father whose life he appears to be emulating against his will. Duff also supports a four-year-old son whom he hasn't seen for two years even though he's not certain he's the father. While racism is presented honestly and produces moments of genuine dramatic tension, it never becomes a manipulative device to move the plot forward. Things begin to unravel between Duff and Josie through the course of the story but not with excessive melodramatic flourishes. In fact, the film is so truthfully matter-of-fact in Roemer's documentary-like approach that when Duff has an explosive moment late in the story it feels shocking but utterly real.
The performances completely surprised me. Best known as the quiet communications specialist Sergeant Kinchloe on the long-running sitcom "Hogan's Heroes", Ivan Dixon brings unerring gravitas to his conflicted character. He doesn't take any short cuts in presenting Duff as a man who makes his own decisions no matter how harsh the consequences. As Josie, jazz great Abbey Lincoln ("For Love of Ivy"), with her infectious smile, is genuinely affecting as a woman who becomes attracted to Duff because she thought the two of them "might have something to say to each other." One wonders in hindsight how powerfully she might have portrayed Billie Holiday if given the chance she was supposed to have before Diana Ross got cast in "Lady Sings the Blues". Julius Harris makes his few scenes count as Duff's belligerent father, while Gloria Foster (later the Oracle in "The Matrix") etches a vivid impression as a beaten-down woman who remains inexplicably faithful to him. In one of his earliest roles, Yaphet Kotto ("Alien") is recognizable as one of Duff's railroad buddies. The well-used Motown soundtrack is a nice surprise as well. This forgotten film is well worth seeking out. Strongly recommended.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
When I went to see this film with my friend Donald Mack as it was being
hosted by this Socialist group that wished to manipulate us more into
adopting their party line than anything else, I'll never forgot his
comment about one third of the way through this film. He looked at me
and said, "- this ain't no movie, this is real!" Naturally, his
assessment of this film was as spot on as one of those stiff jabs he
would use to bloody my nose with when we would spar around with those
Karate gloves I got from Warrior Arts Supplies down on Woodward in
Highland Park. This wasn't your usual Blaxsploitation fare meant to
make money off the projection of stereotypes about the Black Race.
There was something about the black and white documentary in your face
style of independent film-making that made it seem like a home movie
about our friends and family in their most unguarded moments.
The characters were like people we both knew from our own immediate experience. Whether it was Duff or Josie or Duff father's Will or Lee or Jocko, there was an undeniable reality to these characters, albeit they came across a little more subdued and restrained than the people on my block. But most of the people we knew were newly urbanized and assimilating the rhythms and tensions of a dynamic city life. These people were from Down South and known to be more easy going and relaxed, perhaps even more level headed and sober in their relations with each other and the limitations of the cultural atmosphere in which they dwelt.
Will Smith might grouse about being snubbed by the Academy for an Oscar winning performance, but when Ivan Dixon and Abbey Lincoln don't win Best Actor and Best Actress for their performances, you know the cultural bias fix is in and alive and well. The cast is all first rate here from Yaphet Kotto to Gloria Foster to Will Anderson and their portrayals are a clinic and a kind of primer on the attributes of natural acting. There seems to be struck not a false note anywhere in this story, and when it come to its challenging conclusion it seems over far too soon. There is an even and gradual flow to the narrative that absorbs more and more of your attention as it moves forward in time.
The main quality of this film resounds with dignity. It is not the stiff dignity of people eager to protest or defy, but the simple matter-of-fact dignity of people dedicated to live and to proper so as to enjoy the fruits of that dignity and all the other values they hold dear. There is a poetry to the interactions between the characters and a sense of something close to cinema verite' if not exactly the thing itself. When Hemingway spoke of grace under pressure he was speaking of what emerges between Duff and Josie approaching the end of their trans formative journey in this film.
This is a very fine movie, but I won't lie to you: it's not always easy
to watch. It recounts the story of a Black man in the 1960s American
South (outside Birmingham, AL), his problems with relationships, with
white men who mistreat him, etc. Sometimes he reacts in admirable ways,
sometimes he does not. Because of that, and because of the very fine
acting, the characters in this movie come off as very real, not at all
Hollywood caricatures. But that doesn't always make the movie easy to
It's more than worth the occasional discomfort, however, because it's really a very fine movie, one that presents very real people going though all too real life situations and dealing with them in very human ways. Not a movie you will forget quickly, I can promise you, and very definitely not a waste of your time to watch.
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