NOTHING BUT A MAN
(director/writer: Michael Roemer; screenwriter: Robert Young; cinematographer: Robert Young; editor: Luke Bennett; cast: Ivan Dixon (Duff Anderson), Abbey Lincoln (Josie Dawson), Julius Harris (Will Anderson), Stanley Greene (Reverend Dawson), Gloria Foster (Lee), Yaphet Kotto (Jocko), Leonard Parker (Frankie), Helene Arrindell (Doris), Richard Webber (Bud Ellis), Mel Stewart (Raddick), Alfred Puryear (Barney), Gertrude Jeanette(Mrs. Dawson), Martin Priest (white racist sawmill worker); Runtime: 92; MPAA Rating: NR; producers: Robert Young/Michael Roemer/Robert Rubin; New Video; 1964)
“One of the best black films ever made.”
Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz
Michael Roemer(“Haunted”/”The Plot Against Harry”/”Children of Fate: Life and Death in a Sicilian Family“), the German-born, Harvard educated, white, Yonkers living, Jewish filmmaker directs, co-writes and co-produces one of the best black films ever made (which also happens to be one of the best films ever made about someone finding one’s self-worth in difficult circumstances without violence and plenty of self-restraint, no matter the color of skin). The landmark realistic indie pic was made in 1963 at Cape May, New Jersey, subbing for rural Alabama, by white filmmakers Roemer and co-writer/co-producer/cinematographer Robert Young, also white, Jewish and a Harvard grad, and was shot in b/w for a shoestring budget of $160,000 during a three-month period. The critically acclaimed film, one that few people saw except at places like the New York Film Festival and at the Venice Festival or during a short release into a few big city arthouse venues, has powerful naturalistic performances, a wonderful Motown soundtrack (Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, Mary Wells, The Miracles, The Marvelettes and Martha and the Vandellas), and a gripping romantic story as well as a heartfelt story of blacks oppressed by segregation in the south. It uses the stirrings of the civil rights movement in the background to show that without activists the evils of racial discrimination might never have ended. The American classic drama, one of the more genuine and meaningful looks at the black experience in the south during the 1960s, was added to the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress.
The well-traveled Duff Anderson (Ivan Dixon), a quiet but hell-raising black itinerant railroad worker, returns to Alabama to live in a boxcar with hard-drinking fellow workers (Leonard Parker & Yaphet Kotto) in a segregated backwards small-town outside of his native Birmingham. Attracted to the sheltered but well-educated 26-year-old Josie Dawson (Abbey Lincoln, jazz singer), the respected black school teacher and daughter of the town’s comfortable living Baptist minister, Reverend Dawson (Stanley Greene), he marries her in a whirlwind romance despite her father’s objections that he’s not a church-goer and is a rabble-rouser who won’t fit into this conservative small town. Weary of life on the railroad, where travel is mandatory, Duff trades his relatively well-paying job for a low-paying laborer job at the local sawmill. But trouble looms when he tells the blacks their best chance of survival is sticking together and joining a union. When the racist white boss demands Duff act servile to the whites, as is the accepted custom in the south, and recant what he said to the black mill workers and he refuses, he’s immediately fired. Feeling that he’s not a good enough man because he’s unable to support his pregnant wife, Duff visits Birmingham to see his illegitimate son and finds the kid has been abandoned by his mom and is reluctantly cared for by a needy stranger–who is promised support from dad. Even more brutal for Duff is a visit to his ill-tempered, alcoholic and sick one-armed father (Julius Harris), who is looked after by a lonely woman (Gloria Foster). The father, who deserted his family, picks a fight with his son and throws him out of his house. The miserable Duff takes his troubles out on his sweet supportive wife and strikes the pregnant woman when he’s fired from a gas station job, obtained for him by her father, when white racists demand the white owner fire the troublemaker for not going along with their accustomed Jim Crow treatment of blacks or else the station will go up in flames.
When all seems lost, Duff takes another trip to nearby Birmingham and watches his father die. He then returns to his wife with his son in tow and vows to let no one run him out of town, as he’s determined to be a good family man and live with dignity as a real man should.
The quality film has two liberal white filmmakers in a memorable way capturing the black experience and making such a downbeat story uplifting. It wasn’t until a few years later that more blacks started directing and black pride became a movement sweeping across the country, whereby the blacks gave voice to their own experiences like never before in Hollywood. The timeless dramatic film, which also serves as a valuable history lesson, allows us to look at ourselves now with proper reflection and how it was back then, as it proclaims in its humanitarian cry for equality the urgency for people to live with dignity and respect for each other.
REVIEWED ON 7/7/2013 GRADE: A