Nothing But a Man

Screening on Film
Recently Restored
Directed by Michael Roemer.
With Ivan Dixon, Abbey Lincoln, Julius Harris.
US, 1964, 35mm, black & white, 92 min.
Print source: Artists Public Domain/Cinema Conservancy

Director Michael Roemer and photographer Robert M. Young spent several months in the segregated South preparing the script for a film featuring the unlikely, disparaged romance between Duff, a railroad worker and Josie, a school teacher and daughter of a prominent minister. The small-scale, independent production – itself a rarity at the time – would eventually emerge as an exceptional classic of American film. Avoiding both political dogmatism and even direct reference to the civil rights movement, the film’s power lies in its formal simplicity and its sincere, naturalistic evocation of the daily life of a black couple in sixties Birmingham, Alabama. A brilliantly unassuming reprimand to white-centric Hollywood, Nothing But a Man dared to exclude white actors from starring roles and feature black actors in tightly-framed close-ups through the day-to-day of their socially and economically circumscribed existences. The potency and poetry of the documentary-like realism is heightened by the remarkable, unaffected acting of Abbey Lincoln and Julius Harris in their first roles and a measured Ivan Dixon, whose Duff acquires a mythic status as he calmly attempts to retain his dignity and his soul in the face of the condescension, hostility and cruelty – often insidious and indirect – that had become routine. As Duff journeys from job to job, through courtship, marriage and back to his troubled beginnings, he attempts to somehow break the cycle in which both the man and his society have played acutely ingrained parts. — Brittany Gravely