Nothing but a Man: What We Can See in Ourselves

<i>Nothing but a Man:</i> What We Can See in Ourselves

I have, over time, become wary of and impatient with the word authentic, especially when it’s too casually and blithely deployed, as it often is these days, to defame or diminish someone or something based on arbitrary standards of what is or isn’t authentic. I once wrote, in exasperation, that if you want to know what’s really authentic, find the nearest reflecting surface and stare at it.

But often the word becomes unavoidable with certain works that have proved impermeable to time. And I have always assessed and appreciated Nothing but a Man as such, from the time I first saw it, perhaps a decade after its 1964 release. This deceptively simple story of a Black man seeking love and self-worth in a society where the odds of finding both are heaped against him gave me a jolt of recognition to a degree I’d never before encountered in a big-screen depiction of working-class Black America, beginning with the physical surroundings. From my personal experiences of visiting relatives in the South (where the film is set), and from what I absorbed in my own immediate world in the urban North (where the film was shot), I could relate easily to the movie’s buildings, streets, churches, cramped spaces, and patchy landscapes.

Above all, it was the people in the film: Duff (Ivan Dixon), Josie (Abbey Lincoln), Frankie (Leonard Parker), Jocko (Yaphet Kotto), Will (Julius Harris), and Lee (Gloria Foster)—somehow I knew them all, because they weren’t symbols, archetypes, stereotypes, paragons, or victims without license or initiative. They were complicated Black characters with dimension and, at times, even dignity, however hard-earned—or hard to easily perceive. This was, to us and even to many white people, almost revolutionary for an American film of its time. It was an unlikely breakthrough conceived by two Harvard-educated white men: director Michael Roemer, a German-born Jewish refugee who emigrated to the U.S. in 1945, and producer and cinematographer Robert M. Young, a World War II navy veteran who trained to be an engineer before switching to filmmaking. Such a convergence of talent both behind and in front of the camera—at the height of the civil rights movement, when this movie was released—made you believe that anything was possible.

As portrayed by Dixon, Duff Anderson, the movie’s eponymous man, is a railroad laborer, laconic, brooding, and circumspect. He laughs easily, but he’s not as inclined to “ride” his coworkers as Frankie, the joker-provocateur of the gang. (“Frankie, you ain’t got nothing on your mind but your hair,” Duff good-naturedly chides.) Nor is Duff as prickly and dour as Jocko, though he concedes at one point that “I don’t get on so well most places,” which is why for the time being he’s comfortable living on the road. When he and other crew members leave their camp for an evening on the town, he decides to wander off on his own and is drawn to a nearby church by the sweet, soaring sounds of its choir. During a break in the evening service, Duff hangs out at the church’s backyard picnic and is served fried chicken and punch by Josie, a demure, soft-spoken young woman whose reserve and composure almost align with Duff’s own. She’s intrigued. So is he. They make a date.

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