A low key yet unwaveringly honest assessment of racism in the American South during the mid-Sixties, NOTHING BUT A MAN is an unfairly neglected gem that fully deserves its forthcoming BFI re-release. Directed by Michael Roemer – a man with barely a handful of credits to his name – its poignant tale centres on black railroad worker Duff (Ivan Dixon), an easygoing free spirit who tries to improve himself by settling down with schoolteacher Josie (Abbey Lincoln) and working in a ‘normal’ job. He slowly discovers that little has changed while he’s been away; the local white population still call the shots, and anyone who acts above their station is quickly and comprehensively shut out of the community.
Against this backdrop is the sweet, tentative romance between Duff and Josie, two very different souls from opposite sides of the tracks (almost literally), who awaken something new in each other. In him, it’s a new perspective on conventional family, a way of life he turned his back on years ago; in her, it’s the possibility of a life more fully and rewardingly lived. They eventually get married, against the wishes of Josie’s father, the town’s preacher; his Uncle Tom nature may have improved his own family’s standing in town, but it proves to be the antithesis of the self-respecting Duff’s outlook on life.
Roemer’s compassionate film offers no easy solution or suggestion that things are likely to change any time soon
Duff finds that self-respect isn’t a commodity much valued by his new friends however, when his attempts to form a union at his workplace backfires. He visits a neighbouring town to try and track down both his four year old son and his errant father – a man he has never met before – which similarly ends in disappointment. What he finds is a story that appears to uncomfortably mirror his own; that history is already repeating itself. That motivates Duff to try and change the direction his own life has taken, in the hope of escaping the dead end misery that otherwise surely awaits him.
The painful moments of everyday racism are uncomfortably casual, appallingly taken for granted and, more often than not, underscored with the threat of violence. Roemer’s neorealist approach, with its use of authentic locations, naturalistic photography and characters with few opportunities and even less chance of escape, delivers a stark portrayal of a life lived under oppression, even at a time when change was beginning to take root. Duff’s cheerful exterior hides a burning resentment at his lot in life, which slowly emerges as his world begins to collapse.
In an early scene two of Duff’s fellow railroad labourers are playing a game of draughts improvised with used beer bottle caps. It perfectly encapsulates the story of ambition struggling to thwart circumstance, and foreshadows an ending tinged with hope that suggests Duff and his new family may make it after all. But Roemer’s compassionate film offers no easy solution or suggestion that things are likely to change any time soon. It’s an evocative reminder of how life was for America’s black community not so long ago.
NOTHING BUT A MAN is screened again on Tuesday 24 September at 21.00 in Emmanuel College. Book tickets here