[This review was originally posted as part of our 2012 New York Film Festival coverage. It has been reposted to coincide with the week-long theatrical release of the film in New York City.]
In a lot of social message movies there's a tendency for the heroes to be one note. There's an unwavering goodness or an unflagging nobility, and it's this rightness that steers them through the story. These sorts of films can still work if the other elements are compelling, but there's an obvious artifice to it all -- we're watching an idea of a person rather than a real person.
Nothing But a Man doesn't fall into that trap. From Michael Roemer's vérité direction to the naturalism in many of the scenes, it plays like a snapshot of Alabama in the early 1960s. This is a movie that feels lived in.
Duff, played by Ivan Dixon, is not an embodiment of a ideal or a flawless gem of humanity. He's just a man -- the title says it, like a declaration rather than a description -- and he's more fascinating and sympathetic as an imperfect man than he would be as an idea of a man.
Nothing But a Man
Sidney Poitier was originally considered for the role of Duff. As good an actor as Poitier is, he would've been the exact wrong person for the character. Nothing about Poitier says, "I'm a bastard son of a Birmingham drunk, and I lay track on the railroad for a living." On top of that, Poitier wouldn't blend in with the rest of the guys doing manual labor. The most recognizable co-worker is Yaphet Kotto who plays the cynical Jocko, and I think Kotto could have played a fine Duff. But again, there's Dixon, and he has an everyman quality to him that fits just right. To put it another way, Dixon is so grounded and so real, while Poitier is no one else but Poitier.
Duff meets a pretty young school teacher named Josie (Abbey Lincoln). She's also the preacher's daughter, and she knows Duff's probably no good for her. (Had Poitier played Duff, it would be like watching two school teachers or two preacher's kids dating each other.) But there's such an easy, genuine chemistry between them. He smiles at her, Josie smiles with a sideways glance back at him. He charms, she flirts, they court in an old-fashioned sort of way. It seems like a little hokey at first, maybe too polite, but we learn that Duff's made some mistakes in his past and wants to try to live right this time. They get married and get a small house together, which means Duff needs to leave the railroad and look for other work. Since it's Alabama in the 1960s, living right is going to be difficult.
From the beginning, Roemer establishes his vérité approach to the material. We're out laying track with the crew during the credits. The film quality and the angles remind me of educational docs and news reels. We come to their living quarters and it feels authentic, right down the the checkerboard that's split in two and the checkers which are just bottlecaps -- one player has the caps facing up, the other has the caps facing down. In the church, we get loud praise and worship, and a sermon that sounds as spontaneous as it is ecstatic. And before church for contrast, we're in a pool hall/bar where an acned prostitute looks for a date. "Heat Wave" by Martha and the Vandellas blares.
This approach to the material makes the racism more menacing. We get a mention of a lynching a couple years back, but there's no dealing with the Klan or cartoon brutes. Our first glimpse of racism is during one of Duff's and Josie's dates. They're parked and talking, and he's careful to show interest but not put the moves on her. Two white guys show up and shine a flashlight. They intimidate them, and it's unclear if they want to do more than just intimidate them. The uncertainty is the danger. Josie endures it just waiting for them to leave. Duff seems more adamant. If he had to, he'd beat the hell out of them right there, but he probably wouldn't because it would just make things worse. The white guys know this all too well. There are more encounters like this in the film, and each one is tense. It makes the quieter moments of racism stick out more. Unintentional condescension feeds into the overt hate -- there's just no other way to characterize the use of the word "boy" when a white person talks to a black man, even if the white character seems oblivious or otherwise kind.
Duff's struggle to make an honest wage is all about achieving a shred of dignity. Almost everyone he sees grimaces through the bigotry and tries to shrug it off. Duff wants to be treated like a man, not a boy, and not something less than human. To his bosses, the mere demand for dignity is taken as a sign that he's being uppity. As he gets more desperate to make ends meet, betrayal and resentment build inside him. He distrusts white people, which leads to a few tense moments in the last third of the film. He even gets bitter about black people who willingly get treated like dirt. He feels like the only person who wants to be treated like a person. The most withering thing about this depiction of racism is that it makes you feel like the other while also breaking up camaraderie with your fellow man. It has an ugly way of making you completely alone.
Josie's there for Duff at least. In a way she can be viewed as one note, but I think Josie's meant instead to be a kind of anchor in the film. This is someone Duff genuinely does care about, and it may be because Lincoln plays Josie as someone stable and compassionate. But this resentment wears on their marriage. Now we can begin to see the counterpoint to their cute beginnings. There's a brief moment of levity between them while things are getting bad. They play like two kooky kids in love as they hang up the laundry. Motown's on the radio again. It's a beautiful scene, and we feel like we're watching from an adjacent yard as they move behind sheets and shirts. That moment ends abruptly with an ugly vision of where they may end up in a couple years.
The resentment is also tied to Duff's past, and Nothing But a Man has a lot to do with people confronting past mistakes. In Birmingham we get to meet Duff's estranged father Will, played by Julius Harris. (Harris would later co-star with Kotto in Live and Let Die.) We pick up the vérité style to remarkable effect as we wind through Birmingham. The people on the streets mostly do their thing naturally. Sometimes they stare at the camera, but a few white people seem more intent on Duff passing by. In the slums where Duff's father can be found, we see snippets of the hundreds of stories in dark halls, tiny apartments, dirty streets, and front porches. If he can't stand up for himself, then what's the use in fighting? But if he gives up fighting, will he just wind up a broken man like his father? And then what about Josie?
The moments between Duff and Will are icy. There's blood between them and not much else, but blood's enough to care just a little. What's more, you sense Duff may repeat the sins of his father. In a few ways he already has, but he doesn't seem willing to atone. By the time we're halfway through the film, we're operating on different levels of moral obligation and self-respect. How do we do right by our family? How do we do right by our friends? How do we live with dignity when people have nothing but contempt for you? None of these questions get asked outright, but they're all there and so apparent, and that's part of the brilliance of the film.
As much as this is conveyed by Roemer's direction and the script (based on a 1933 play), Nothing But a Man owes a bulk of its success to Dixon's performance. He communicates Duff's train of thought without always having to declare anything. All he needs is a knowing "Okay" or "I see," just a look or a pause, and we can feel what's welling up inside. We may begin to doubt the possibility of redemption and of dignity, but we never doubt Dixon's ability to make us believe in this story, however it may turn out. It's too human to be denied.
[Director Michael Roemer will be in attendance at the 7:30 screening of Nothing But a Man on Friday, November 9th. There will be a Q & A session after the film.]