Nothing But A Man, widely recognized as one of the great films of the Civil Rights Era, but little seen today, looks back to Italian Neorealism, and forward to the 1970s, and Charles Burnett’s Killer of Sheep.
Directed by German Jewish exile Michael Roemer and starring Ivan Dixon, who would later go onto direct the seminal black nationalist film The Spook Who Sat By The Door, Nothing But A Man was shot on a shoestring budget in a severe, minimalist, black and white style. Roemer and his cinematographer Robert M. Young waste nothing. Every frame looks like a Gordon Parks photograph. Duff Anderson, Dixon, is a Korean War veteran living in Jim Crow Alabama. He’s stuck in a menial job driving railroad spikes with a segregated labor gang, living with a small group of single men, traveling through the south, following the labor market where it leads.
Then he meets Josie Dawson, the daughter of a local preacher, played by jazz singer Abbey Lincoln. It’s love at first sight, for both. Joise Dawson is everything Anderson’s always dreamed of, an educated woman who works as a schoolteacher, the middle-class partner he’s always desired. Joisie, in turn, admires Anderson’s assertive personality, his unwillingness to live under Jim Crow, the way he seems to anticipate the Civil Rights movement and the Black Panthers. Not only does she agree to marry him, but when she finds out he has a son by another woman, she offers to help raise him as her own.
Even though Nothing But A Man ends on a hopeful note, it hows us exactly what Duff Anderson is up against. Duff’s father Will, played by Julius Harris, who was only 10 years older than Ivan Dixon and at times seems more like an older brother than a father, is an alcoholic on a downward spiral. He has an attractive live in girlfriend. He abandoned Duff exactly the way Duff abandoned his own son. The message is clear. Every time Duff sees his father, he sees himself, not in a few decades, not in a few years, but in a few weeks, or even a few days. Will Anderson is Duff’s mirror image, the ever present possibility of his own failure.
“Can men like Duff Anderson break the circle?” the film asks us. “Can he get out of the permanent underclass that’s consumed his father?”
For most men, it’s their bad qualities that keep them down. For Duff Anderson, it’s the reverse. Duff is forceful, intelligent, masculine. He has a sense of self-respect. That’s dangerous for a black man in the Jim Crow south. Unwilling to put on a show of deference for the local whites, he’s fired from a succession of jobs, each one worse than the one that came before it. The same qualities that made Duff attractive to Joise threaten to tear apart their marriage. The more the need to make a living tears down his manhood, the surlier and the more abusive he becomes to his wife. Finally he crosses the line and get violent, shoving Joisie to the ground in a moment of rage. He packs his bags and goes back to the city to visit his father.
But Will Anderson is on his last legs. Now so drunk that he can barely sit up straight, he dies on the way to the hospital. As he makes the arrangements for the funeral, Duff realizes he has no idea where his father was born, or how old he is. He inherits nothing. He realizes that however hard life is going to get, he needs to break the cycle of poverty and despair, by any means necessary. “I can always go back and chop cotton if I have to,” he tells his stepmother. He brings the boy home to Joisie, who agrees to forgive him, and take him back. “Everything is gonna be all right,” she tells him.
Will it? We don’t really know. But Nothing But A Man is a triumph. It tells the story, not only of the black working-class in the Jim Crow South, but of the American working class as a whole. It should have laid the groundwork for an entire school of American, socialist neorealism. Instead it’s been forgotten.