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A remarkably authentic film from the 1960s about the lives of black people in the American south, receiving its first official release in the UK this week
It’s a pity that Michael Roemer’s Nothing But A Man has only made it to UK cinemas when, fortunately, racial inequality has improved to a state unrecognisable to when the film was made. Filmed in the early 1960s and set in the American south (although filmed exclusively in New Jersey) the film follows Duff (Ivan Dixon), a young black railroad worker, as he falls in love with a preacher’s daughter, Josie (played by jazz singer, Abbey Lincoln), a girl who all of Duff’s coworkers believe to be out of his league. Duff himself remarks on their differences: “either we gonna hit the hay or we gonna get married. You don’t wanna hit the hay and I don’t wanna get married.”
However, Duff transforms. After a visit to his estranged alcoholic father and to his four-year-old son, who he meets for the first time, he returns to Josie convinced that his mistakes will not be repeated and that his father’s image does not predict his inevitable future. He asks Josie to marry him. At first she is reticent, perhaps because of Duff’s history or because of her family’s vehemence that she reconsiders, but she ignores her family’s wishes and they marry. Duff leaves his independent traveller lifestyle behind him and they find a small house in the town.
Married life proves more difficult than they first imagined, especially when Duff refuses to be a “white man’s nigger”. There is a stark contrast between Duff’s attitude and almost all of the other black people’s attitudes. One can imagine the white bigoted beliefs of the time but it is equally shocking for us now as it is for Duff’s character in the 1960s that the resistance for change was equally apparent in black people as it was for white America. The moderate approach to racism by black people, personified in Reverend Dawson, Josie’s father, was an indication of the fear at the time and how firmly fixed power was in white men’s hands.
Duff’s radical attitude ostracises him from the town. No white employer will hire him because of the reputation of “trouble” that he has acquired, and few black men will befriend him in fear of the association. Duff comments that it’s “just like a lynching – they don’t use a knife on you, but they got other ways”.
Nothing But a Man is a marvelous and realistic depiction of the lives of black men and women at a time when their inferiority was only beginning to be seriously questioned. The film has been said to be Malcolm X’s favourite film, which is especially remarkable as the film was made by two Jewish filmmakers, Michael Roemer and Robert M. Young.
For all of his misbehavior Duff’s principles and his steadfast respect between people of all races shines through in this film and his retort to Josie’s father when his attitude his questioned particularly resonates: “You been stoopin’ for so long you don’t know how to stand up”. What a message this might have been to the sixties civil rights movement in the UK. Nevertheless, it’s as unmissable now as it would’ve been then.