In terms of race relations, times were turbulent during the 1960s in America. Emblem for the time was Martin Luther King whose fight for black equality in America victoriously paved way for the legislation of the Civil Rights Act in ’64 & the Voting Rights Act in ’65. However, blacks continued to be persecuted, particularly in the Southern parts of America and it is here that Michael Roemer’s film, cinematically released for the first time on British shores, sets its focus.
Reputed to be Malcolm X’s favorite film, Nothing But A Man is an honest & unsentimental examination of American race relations and its effects on society. Our protagonist Duffy is a railroad worker who spends his time playing checkers with his colleagues and frequenting a local bar. However, a meeting with Josie, daughter to the local Preacher, tempts Duffy towards a more secure life. Nonetheless, the freedom of this new family life is an illusion as both Duff and his wife come to realize the social problems still faced by their race.
Unlike many of the Hollywood films made at the time, Nothing But A Man, like its main character, refuses to adhere to the conventions expected of it. Roemer’s film focuses squarely on the black experience. The reasons for Malcolm X’s admirance is plain to see; Duffy is an individual driven by his beliefs and willing to even sacrifice the security of his family for the equality he believes in.
As Duffy, Ivan Dixon gives a powerfully understated performance. He is not a man with the world on his shoulders, just one who believes in the rights discriminatorily withheld from him. His measured performance is immediately convincing, his determination to be treated fairly just, making for affecting scenes of quiet devastation as the narrative progresses. Having married Josie and secured a job, the racism Duffy experiences at the hands of his white colleagues burns in Duffy as it does in the audience. When he is accosted and dismissed by his superiors for encouraging other black workers to stand up for themselves, you both see and feel Duff’s pain; Dixon’s arresting performance allowing the audience to feel such powerful emotion.
Roemer’s screenplay, co-wrote with Robert M. Young, does allow for lighter moments, particularly during the early stages of Duff & Josie’s courtship. The playful jokes they make at the other’s expense are warming & witty, their relationship one that you are immediately able to invest in; making it all the more tragic as Duff descends in to an unstoppable pit of despair and self-loathing.
As Duffy struggles to hold work and grows further away from Josie, you begin to worry that he may not have the strength to do more than emulate the failings of his father. Played with soul-destroying aggression by the brilliant Julius Harris, the scenes between Duff & his father highlight the uncertainties our protagonist has in his own life, that he may be destined to be nothing more than his father’s son; a point reinforced by Duffy’s own abandoning of a son he refuses to believe is his.
What makes Nothing But A Man stick so prominently in the mind after viewing is the carefully constructed screenplay, that at once tells a personal story of racial discrimination and a wider one of race relations. The racial abuse of black workers is provoking and underlines the realities of 60s America; a country that wanted to perceive itself as civilized but was really barbarous in its approach to race relations.
Then there’s the title, which shows that even despite his best intentions and motivations, the choices made by Duffy are his own. The at once neat and ambiguous ending, that gives hope when it’s needed most, illustrates just how strong a character Duffy can be; nothing but admirable for a man fighting for equality in that so called ‘Land of Dreams’.
Nothing But A Man is showing regularly at BFI Southbank between Sep. 30h & Oct. 10th, as well as between Oct. 23rd & Nov. 10th. Full details can be found here: http://bit.ly/18prAeG