Last summer, in his speech from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, President Obama described the fortitude during the Civil Rights Movement of the “people who could have given up and given in but kept on keeping on.” It’s a minor remark in a long speech about the progress and continuing work of race relations in America, but it’s also a knowing nod to the millions of ordinary people who couldn’t march on Washington. People embodied by the character of Duff Anderson in Nothing But a Man, who toiled under the yoke of segregation and discrimination that was so overwhelming it threatened both their livelihood and their lives. Quietly released in 1964 before disappearing for decades, Nothing But a Man has only in recent years come to be appreciated as the cinematic achievement it is: a richly nuanced story of hope without change, and a snapshot of American society that, depending on the viewer, is as relevant today as it was 50 years ago.
Director: Michael Roemer
Producers: Michael Roemer, Robert Rubin, Robert Young
Writers: Michael Roemer, Robert Young
Cinematographer: Robert Young
Editor: Luke Bennett
Cast: Ivan Dixon, Abbey Lincoln, Julius Harris, Gloria Foster, Martin Priest, Leonard Parker, Yaphet Kotto, Stanley Greene, Helen Lounck, Helene Arrindell
US Release: September 19, 1964
US Distributor: Artists Public Domain/Cinema Conservancy
Duff (Ivan Dixon) is an aimless but good-hearted section hand working on the railroads in segregated Alabama. He has a young son who he doesn’t support, and a disapproving, alcoholic father who doesn’t support him. Duff is happy enough drinking beer, playing cards, and chasing women; his ambitions to do more in life are stifled by Jim Crow laws, and besides, his buddies aren’t really hoping for change, so why should he? It is this mindset that Obama was referring to in his speech, produced by the isolation and apathy that segregation creates in the minds of the oppressed. The March on Washington was an abstract to the Duffs of 1963, an impossible fight against the laws of a country that had never in its history achieved full equality among its citizenry. Nothing But a Man will resonate particularly with those who argue the same holds true for various segments of the populationin 2014, even well outside the context of race relations.
But Duff does more than keep on, and gradually, confidently steps outside the lines that segregation has created around him. After meeting girl-next-door Josie Dawson (an unheralded Abbey Lincoln, who would go on to a successful singing and acting career), Duff’s outlook on life begins to shift dramatically. Josie’s father is the town preacher, and his sermonizing criticism of his daughter’s new suitor ultimately forces Duff to reckon with himself and his lot in life. Seeking a new direction, he marries Josie—despite her father’s disapproval—and takes a new job at a lumberyard in a neighboring town.
Marriage brings its own new challenges for Duff and Josie, and after innocently speaking up for equal rights at his new job, Duff is not only fired but blacklisted around town. Things go from bad to worse, and as Duff’s world falls to pieces his frustration turns to anger and even violence. Unemployed and desperate, he lashes out at a pregnant Josie (whom he insensitively claims has never experienced real racism) and anyone who crosses his path, refusing to feign deference to a white man just to get a job. Problem for Duff is that in his world, a job makes a man, and he’s nothing without one. The film’s coda is simultaneously tragic and uplifting, and perfectly rounds out Duff’s character arc and motives.
As Duff, Ivan Dixon oozes a tough charm reminiscent of Paul Newman in Cool Hand Luke. Duff is much smarter than people give him credit for and much more strong headed than they would expect from his easy-going manner. Interestingly, in real life Dixon was often acting alongside and in the shadow of Sidney Poitier, who achieved massive stardom in the 1960’s during a time when Hollywood was hardly ready for one African-American screen star, let alone two. Behind the scenes, Dixon was working to change that as president of Negro Actors for Action, and the cast of Nothing But a Man even took a day off from filming (in New Jersey) to take part in the March on Washington. It’s an incredible irony to consider: Obama referred to those who couldn’t be at the march (the Duffs throughout the country), when in reality the activist actor who portrayed Duff was actually there. The story behind the camera is just as interesting, as Nothing But a Man was co-written and directed by Michael Roemer, a Holocaust survivor who drew inspiration from his father’s experience as a Jew in Nazi Germany who, like Duff, had his livelihood unfairly and hopelessly stripped away.
Although many would argue we’re living in a post-racial America, the fact is that joblessness, hopelessness, and yes, determination to keep on keeping on, are experiences that transcend racial boundaries. The country’s stagnant unemployment rate and the widening gap between the 1% and the 99% are making a lot of people feel like Duff, no matter which particular misfortune they’ve suffered. Nothing But a Man captures a time in American culture and history that bears heavily on contemporary society, and seeing the film in its original 35mm glory is simply too rare an opportunity to pass up.