#145) Nothing But a Man (1964)

Nothing_But_a_Man_theatrical_release_poster

#145) Nothing But a Man (1964)

OR “Can’t Get Enough of That Wonderful Duff”

Directed by Michael Roemer

Written by Roemer and Robert M. Young

Class of 1993

No original theatrical trailer, but here’s a modern one by the British Film Institute.

The Plot: Set in and around Birmingham, Alabama during the Civil Rights movement, “Nothing But a Man” is the story of two African-Americans who fall in love. Railroad section hand Duff (Ivan Dixon) is uncompromising in his dislike for the racist treatment he and his race have received, while schoolteacher Josie (Abbey Lincoln) wishes to coexist with the town’s white population as is, following the example of her preacher father (Stanley Green). Both Duff and Josie’s morals are challenged by the ongoing racial tension, Duff’s inability to find steady work, and his strained relationship with his alcoholic father Will (Julius Harris).

Why It Matters: The NFR praises the film’s soundtrack and “naturalistic almost documentary visual style”.

But Does It Really?: “Nothing But a Man” is the kind of film the National Film Registry is all about. Sure, it’s for the classics, but it’s also for films that captured their time perfectly and need to be remembered. “Nothing But a Man” shows the complexity of the African-American life of the early ‘60s without making it preachy or sentimental. This film is grounded by its neorealism, as well as some excellent chemistry between Ivan Dixon and Abbey Lincoln. Celebrated by critics and scholars in more recent years, “Nothing But a Man” has never gotten its fair share of praise, and its inclusion on the NFR is a chance for future generations to discover this wonderful film.

Everybody Gets One: Director Michael Roemer based this film partly on his experience as a child surviving the rise of Nazis in his native Berlin. He felt the persecution towards him and his Jewish family paralleled the persecution of African-Americans in the south. Abbey Lincoln was a jazz singer with several hit albums under her belt by the time she made “Nothing But a Man”. Her brief appearance in the 1956 film “The Girl Can’t Help It” inspired her to launch an acting career.

Wow, That’s Dated: Gas is 27 cents a gallon! And keep an ear out for a song by “Little” Stevie Wonder.

Take a Shot: No one says the title, but the real drinking game is every time a white character calls Duff “boy” and/or every time Duff calls Josie “baby”.

Seriously, Oscars?: Due to its very limited release (I don’t think it ever played Los Angeles), “Nothing But a Man” received zero Oscar nominations. It didn’t start getting acclaim until it was rereleased with a restored print in 1993 (the same year it made the NFR list).

Other notes

  • The DVD of this film comes with a reprint of an all-encompassing essay by Jim Davidson from a 1998 issue of Common Quest. If you want to know anything about the making of this film, track this article down. I also recommend this essay by Judith E. Smith. You’ll learn more here than on the IMDb trivia page, that’s for sure.
  • Yes, this movie was directed by a white man, but Michael Roemer has stated that he only did it because he felt no one else was telling this story. In the years since, he has said that enough films by/about African-Americans have been made that white people should no longer direct them.
  • If nothing else, this film has a great soundtrack
  • Duff, never call a woman “ma’am”. Especially if you’re trying to get with her.
  • A morally complex man trying to date a repressed relative of the town preacher…oh my god, it’s a remake of “Hell’s Hinges”!
  • When a group of clean-cut white men show up, it can only be trouble. And I’m not talking about the movies, I mean in real life.
  • I understand this was made on a shoe-string budget, but there are several out-of-focus shots throughout the film. Cinematographer (and co-writer) Robert Young should have stuck to his old job of family physician.
  • I’m glad that “Nothing But a Man” is pro-vaccination.
  • That’s Gloria Foster as Will’s wife Lee. If you know her only as the Oracle from “The Matrix”, you owe it to yourself to look up her other work.
  • (Love Is Like A) Heat Wave” doesn’t strike me as a slow-dance kinda song.
  • Blink and you’ll miss Esther Rolle (aka Florida from “Good Times”) as one of the churchgoers in the wedding scene.
  • Be on the lookout for not one, but two driving shots in the movie where someone on the street waves at the camera.
  • “Stop being so damned understanding!” Now that’s a line you don’t hear in most movies.
  • Along those lines, I appreciate that this film never pits Duff and Josie against each other. They fight and argue sometimes, but through it all you can see that they love each other.
  • The guy with the broken car was the winner of the 1964 Truman Capote lookalike contest.
  • We learn towards the end that Will is 48, and that is a rough 48. To add to the confusion, Julius Harris was 40 during filming, while his on-screen son Ivan Dixon was 32.

Legacy

  • Ivan Dixon continued acting, most famously on “Hogan’s Heroes” for five seasons. Dixon would go on to direct films and episodic television, including fellow NFR entry “The Spook Who Sat by the Door”.
  • Abbey Lincoln would continue her singing career well into the early 2000s. Her acting career never took off, but she did manage to snag a Golden Globe nomination for playing the titular maid in “For Love of Ivy”.
  • When Michael Roemer’s follow-up film “The Plot Against Harry” couldn’t find distribution, his directing career all but ended. It was only after he converted his film to video for his children that they started getting recognition.

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