Nothing But a Man (1964) is a soaring triumph of capturing human nature on film. It is about racism and the hopelessness it causes, but that is just the central agent of what it investigates—the trickle-down nature of despair. At the height of the civil rights struggle, here’s a quiet movie about what really was at stake for African-Americans at the time: not just jobs, safety and economic freedom but the freedom to believe one is worthy of respect, worthy of love.
We have the pride of one man, Duff Anderson (Ivan Dixon), a railroad worker in the rural South who finds love with a beautiful school teacher, Josie (Abbey Lincoln), but resents it because he doesn’t believe he deserves it. Josie is the daughter of Rev. Dawson (Stanley Greene), who isn’t thrilled with her daughter’s choice of partner; he raised her to be above the type of labor-intensive, month to month existence Duff can supply. For his part, Duff is certainly intelligent enough to make his way with his mind and not his back, but he submarines his employment opportunities by refusing to be a “white man’s nigger,” a distinction he reserves for the assimilating Rev. Dawson. To marry Josie he quits his job at the railroad as it requires too much travel to start a family. When he refuses to bow down to his white bosses at a mill, he is let go and is blacklisted. He gets a job at a gas station but cannot bring himself to emasculate himself for the benefit of the white customers who ridicule him, making him all but unemployable (he passes on a job as a bellhop because of the simian, undignified uniform, and he refuses to pick cotton because of its historical ramifications). Duff’s indignant principles are laudable, admirable and understandable but not practical, and though they were fine when he was just looking after himself, with a wife and expecting a child, they become borderline irresponsible.
Further, for the whites who set him up and punish him, their bullying of him and his defiance in return are transient moments; for Duff they contribute to a feeling of worthlessness and frustration, one that he takes home with him to Josie. When Duff looks at Josie, he is partly seeing someone who, because of the choices her father has made, has avoided the struggles he has lived with. Not only does he resent this, he resents how it was acquired by, to his eyes, selling out for white approval. “You’ve never really been a nigger,” he lashes out at her, “living with them, in that house.” The movie makes it plain that the institutional disenfranchisement of racism, which forces people to make a choice between their pride and success is the original evil, but it doesn’t use that to forgive Duff for turning away those who love him. Duff’s father Will (Julius Harris) is a pitiful drunk who we surmise lived a frustrated existence similar to where Duff finds himself now. Will was able to put his anger and self-loathing in a bottle and use it to push away his son and wife (he slums around with a woman with sad eyes who loves Will but doesn’t respect him) and Duff, who already has a son he rarely sees from another woman, is threatening to do the same with Josie.
The movie takes the civil rights struggle and internalizes it to the level of an existential crisis. The “man” of the title takes on a laundry list of meanings, from the powers that be in the country Duff lives in, the same country that once would have defined Duff as three-fifths of a man, to Duff’s struggle to become the man he wants to be as he fights the forces that tell him he never will, even the ones generated from within. Here’s a man battling himself, his kin, his race and his country all at once. The sick reality is that his defiant pride and refusal to grovel should make him feel better about himself; instead, because of the consequences, they do the opposite. If he makes one compromise on one front like, say, kowtowing to the whites who control his economic fate, how can he look himself in the mirror on another? If he accepts the love of this wonderful woman, how can he retain his edge when competing against those who think he’s worthless?
Upon this heartbreaking clash, the movie is boosted by haunting black and white images and performances of the highest quality. Harris, as the drunk and bitter Will, is a chilling look into Duff’s future, and Dixon has an exquisite ability to embody all the directions he’s being pulled, make us understand each one, and force us to think about his actions even when we don’t like them. If there’s a weak character in the bunch, it’s Josie, not because of Lincoln’s appealing portrayal, but because she exists more as an idea than a real person. She’s too preternaturally perfect, representing idyllic happiness, when more grit and certainly a better perspective about what she thinks about her husband’s trials would have been welcomed. Beyond that, the script is a mine field of quiet truths and hard realities. It’s particularly strong during the moments when Duff encounters racism. After a group of white troublemakers invade a date between Duff and Josie, Duff remarks, “They don’t sound human, do they?” as the intruders speed away. Later, an odious co-worker compliments Duff on marrying “the best-looking colored girl in town” and is insulted when Duff isn’t honored. There are many times when the script includes scenarios in which a white person says something that in his warped opinion is fair then becomes disgruntled and dangerous at Duff’s reluctance to feel the same.
What separates Nothing But a Man from the easy liberal feel-good movies that Hollywood produced before and continues to produce today when race is involved is its understanding in what is at stake for the black cause. “I feel so free inside,” Duff says in a happy moment. It’s the internal worth that he’s after, being able to sit at a lunch counter or attend a school is just part of that.
The movie was a labor of love of Michael Roemer and Robert Young, two white documentarians who were determined to tell a fictional story about what they had seen in a stay in Alabama. Roemer directed and co-wrote with Young, who was also the cinematographer. They produced the picture independently (how sad is it that so many of the important films about black people were forced to be made outside of the major studios?), and it was one of the first dramas with a mostly black cast released for integrated audiences. In that way it is in the footsteps of Kent Mackenzie’s excellent The Exiles (1961), a moving story of the plight of Native Americans in modern America, and Nothing But a Man similarly avoids a pious and unrealistically happy ending. As the credits roll, Duff is in a good place, but there’s little doubt there are woes ahead of him. It’s about a struggle, one that’s been fought in this country for centuries and one that is fought in the souls of many from generation to generation. It’s like Duff says, “It ain’t going to be easy, baby, but it’s going to be alright.”