In Michael Roemer’s superb and little-seen 1964 drama
Nothing But a Man — playing October 8 and 9 as part of
Film Forum’s seven-movie Roemer tribute — Ivan Dixon and Abbey Lincoln play a young couple striving to make a life for themselves in small-town Alabama. Lincoln’s Josie, serene and self-possessed, is a preacher’s daughter and a college-educated schoolteacher who refuses to let white people define her identity. Dixon’s Duff Anderson, a former railroad worker whose independence and intelligence threaten the white male authority figures in the town where he’s chosen to settle, doesn’t have the same emotional fortitude. His circumstances are different, for reasons Josie understands: “It’s not as hard on a girl,” she tells him, trying to soothe him after he’s lost one job after another. “They’re not afraid of us.”
Nothing But a Man is so astute about the economic and racial politics of the Jim Crow South, and particularly about the trauma suffered by black men struggling for respectability, that it’s hard to believe it was made by two white guys, Roemer and his co-writer and cinematographer Robert M. Young, former Harvard classmates. Then again, in 1964, you’d probably have to be white guys to release even a low-budget independent film about life in black America featuring a nearly all-black cast. Nothing But a Man, made for around $230,000, did poorly at the box office upon its release, though it won two prizes at the 1964 Venice Film Festival and earned a stalwart audience among African Americans when it was shown in schools and churches. It wasn’t until 1993, when the film was re-released, that it finally found the viewership it deserves.
Still, this delicately wrought but urgent picture — which
Malcolm X called his favorite movie — isn’t as well known as it ought to be, which is all the more reason to see it now. (Roemer himself will be on hand to introduce the 8:30 show on October 8.) The performances are uniformly fine, and the cast is something of a who’s-who of young African American performers, at the time just beginning their careers: They include popular character actor Julius Harris, who plays Duff’s bitter, absentee father, and, as his loyal girlfriend, Gloria Foster, who would later play the Oracle in the first two Matrix movies. But the stars, Dixon and Lincoln, make the deepest, most lasting impression. Dixon — possibly best known as Sergeant James Kinchloe on Hogan’s Heroes — plays
a believably flawed man, hanging tight to whatever shreds of
dignity he can grasp: It’s a restrained, multilayered performance. And Lincoln, more renowned as a jazz singer and civil rights
activist than as an actress, is a knockout. As Josie, she’s both low-key and high-wattage — her character is so poised and radiant that you’d almost believe she could single-handedly rewrite the code of early-1960s, segregated America. She can’t, of course — but standing tall by her guy, she won’t go down without a fight.