Nothing but a Man was shot in the summer of 1963—the summer of Medgar Evers, George Wallace at the University of Alabama, and “I Have a Dream”—set in the segregated South but filmed in the precincts of the South Jersey Shore. In his first fiction feature, Michael Roemer, a Berlin-born, Harvard-educated Jew, was looking to capture something essential about black life in small-town, contemporary Alabama. And despite the disjunctions in its inception, from the first black-and-white images by cinematographer/co-screenwriter Robert M. Young, process-oriented scenes of a black section crew putting down railroad track, Nothing but a Man has a commanding veracity that makes a viewer trust in its truth. Laurel-hung at Venice and lauded at the ’64 New York Film Festival, Nothing but a Man submerged from sight afterward but now resurfaces every decade or so in home video or revival—like Film Forum’s week-long run—as if by historical necessity.
Duff Anderson (Ivan Dixon) is introduced working for the railroads for $80 a week, living cooped up in the sticks with his co-workers, including a sarcastic youngblood played by Yaphet Kotto. On one of their trips into town, Duff meets and makes a date with Josie (jazz singer Abbey Lincoln), a 26-year-old schoolteacher who lives with her walleyed stepmother and Baptist preacher father, whose role as liaison to the community’s white owners affords the family a measure of privilege. Daddy disproves of the match, but from the moment Duff and Josie meet, they are all barely suppressed smiles, sharing the private joke of their perfect attraction. Duff tries to play unpolished, oversexed, blue-collar tough with Josie—”All right, so I’m primitive”—but she calls his bluff, appealing to the obvious intelligence in his laughing, liquid eyes.
Briefly rebuffed, Duff visits Birmingham where, in the same day, he meets for practically the first time his four-year-old son and his own father, a broken-down old sot played with dyspeptic intensity by Julius Harris, whose only advice for Duff is not to get married. As though spurred by this negative role model, Duff promptly proposes to Josie and settles down in town with her.
From the first appearance of Martha and the Vandellas’ “Heat Wave,” Nothing but a Man‘s soundtrack is supplied by Motown—and much of the town’s black population has followed its beat north to Detroit. Duff finds out why as he’s pushed out of one mill for talking about unionizing and blackballed from the rest, unable to stoop to monkey-suit jobs that compromise his dignity or to ignore the harassment of local peckerwoods. “Make ’em think you’re going along and get what you want,” stepdad advises, but Duff, who saw too much of the world in the military to accept such “the way things are” provincialism, and who has an ineffaceable core dignity besides, glowers back that “it ain’t in me.” A white co-worker rides Duff when he doesn’t laugh at his jibes—”You don’t smile much, do you?” Dixon’s performance is so effective, though, precisely because of his elasticity, including both Duff’s eager readiness for happiness, as well as his smothered indignation. Bent out of shape by the world, Duff will snap back at home, sometimes harshly.
More often, Duff projects a tense, hard-edged pragmatism, figuring a way to tolerate the uneasy, uneven truces between man and woman, middle and working class, white and black, without selling his essential self. Nothing but a Man—the title almost suggests manhood as something trifling. The film, however, confirms it’s a mighty hard ideal to reach.