Racial Film Classic Gets a Revival


Michael Roemer’s 1964 drama Nothing But a Man–a classic about a black worker in the South who won’t play by the white man’s condescending rules–is back at Film Forum and looking really sturdy.

I saw it there on Friday night, where I was impressed all over again by the excellent, unmannered acting by Ivan Dixon and Abbe Lincoln, the crisp black and white photography, and the moody Motown score, all serving the powerful story of a decent man who becomes hardened and almost broken by hate.

Afterwards, Roemer fielded questions from the audience, giving insight into the groundbreaking film.

*He said he wanted to film it in Virginia, but was told, “You’ll get killed,” so they shot it in southern Jersey.

*When Ivan Dixon got the script, he asked his agent “Who wrote this thing?” and was told, “They’re probably Jews.” And they were.

*Screen Actors Guild fined Dixon for doing this, a non-union film. He replied, “Fine–you never got me any jobs!”

*At the first showings, “White people found it offensive and depressing. People came out angry and said, ‘Why did we have to see this?’ But black audiences were laughing, which was wonderful. They were so happy to be rendered onscreen and enjoyed seeing, for example, a scene where a black woman brushes her teeth.”

*Malcolm X saw the movie three days before he was shot, and liked it.

*The film got mostly good reviews at the time, but it didn’t make money. Roehmer clarified: “Other people made money on it, but we didn’t.”

It must have increased his solidarity with the way his black characters were treated.