Nothing But a Man is the most acclaimed movie you’ve never seen. Released in 1964, it won the San Giorgio Prize at the Venice Film Festival, awarded to films considered especially important for the progress of civilization. It was re-released nearly thirty years later, at which time the Washington Post said of it, “It may be that the best film to come out so far in 1993 was actually made in 1964. [It] is one of the most sensitive films about black life ever made in this country.” One year later it was listed in the National Film Registry. And on its fortieth anniversary it was released on DVD, at which time a critic for DVD Talk said of it, “Brilliant is not a word to be taken lightly, but in the case of 1964’s Nothing But a Man, brilliant barely begins to scratch the surface.” Yet, it was a commercial failure during the three decades after being made. While planned to be shown to integrated audiences, the film would mainly be presented in schools and churches in black communities in sixteen millimeter format.
This might not be too surprising given the film’s topic and near all-black cast. It is a perceptive account of a self-respecting black man’s brutal struggle to maintain dignity and to attain stable work and family in the deep South during the early 1960s. It is among the first of its kind portrayals of the personal-level injuries inflicted by joint injustices of classism and racism, done from the perspective of African Americans. The film’s co-writer and director, Michael Roemer, said his decision to feature black actors in detailed close-up camera shots whenever possible, blemishes included, directly challenged Hollywood’s fear of African American faces dominating the screen. The film’s documentary-like quality is based on an authenticity undoubtedly attained from the writers’ year-long journey in 1963 studying life in the deep South. They referred to it as a “reverse underground railroad” whereby they talked with families house-to-house in a direction taking them deeper south rather than north.
The story concerns an itinerant railroad section-gang worker, Duff Anderson, played by Ivan Dixon (known for his role in TV’s Hogan’s Heroes, and director for many other shows). While on a five-week stint in a small Alabama town, Duff forms a relationship with the town’s all-black school teacher Josie, the preacher’s daughter, played by jazz singer Abbey Lincoln. Duff’s co-workers question this cross-class union, and the preacher and his wife forbid it. Determined to make the relationship work, Duff considers quitting the steady, good-paying unionized rail work and settling down. The town’s white employers recognize Duff for his good work, but they don’t appreciate his principles: Duff does not tolerate affronts to his dignity by white racists and, unlike his coworkers and the preacher, he refuses to accommodate. For this he is labeled a troublemaker by white employers, and he quickly learns how difficult it is to find steady work despite his solid abilities. Of course, work and unemployment directly affect family life as well, and the frustration of relentless employer discrimination and blacklisting threatens Duff’s and Josie’s relationship. After a trip to look up his father, now disabled from a sawmill accident and defeated by unemployment, Duff reassesses his views on family life and hope.
In real life, Ivan Dixon and Abbey Lincoln were active in the Civil Rights Movement; in fact, they and the rest of the cast halted filming to attend the March on Washington to hear Dr. King. And the Civil Rights Act was passed the very year Nothing But a Man was released. That Act and the growth of federal jobs at the time proved more beneficial for the employment prospects of college-educated African Americans than it did for less-educated manual workers like Duff Anderson. But, in this regard, Duff’s life is atypical. He was a gandy dancer before settling down. Many African Americans held this job of laying and repairing tracks. Gandy was the name of the manufacturer of the rail tools, and their work movements resembled dancing, often led by a caller who sang out chants. The work was arduous before mechanized by the 1950s, but it was unionized, well-paid and well-regarded. And as seen in the film’s early bunkhouse scenes, there was strong class and racial solidarity. Those who examine the human effects of work know that jobs of this type are a main source of one’s self respect and collective sensibility, a main source of empowerment and hope —the very features we see in Duff. The film wonderfully shows how such an empowered personal character as Duff’s responds when forced to work in unorganized jobs and live in a Jim Crow town.
Fifty years later, we note the job opportunities Duff has even in the small racist town and even as his principles cause him trouble. We must wonder how much more difficult it is for young able black men today who face far fewer job opportunities and can’t move from one factory to another. Today they face an unemployment rate of over 28% and a poverty rate just slightly below that. The continuing strength of Nothing But a Man could be that by showing us Duff’s determination to achieve a respectable life, we are forced to reconsider today’s popular explanations we hear for the social problems marking the black working class that blame it on personal shortcomings like shiftlessness, irresponsibility or cool-pose culture. The film demonstrates, instead, the reality of the barriers to a good life erected by what the film writers call “outside forces,” that is, racism and economics. A debate in sociology over the past thirty years concerns which of these two powerful outside forces best explains the conditions of black workers today. It also concerns the role played by the inside forces of personal character and culture. This fifty-year-old film might offer useful insight on these current debates.