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‘Nothing but a Man’ (NR)By Hal Hinson
Washington Post Staff Writer
July 10, 1993
It may be that the best film to come out so far in 1993 was actually made in 1964.
"Nothing but a Man" is a story of black life in Birmingham, Ala. -- in particular, the struggles of a young railroad worker and the schoolteacher he marries to carve a meaningful place for themselves -- that fell by the wayside when it was originally released. Now it is being given a new life, with new prints and a nationwide release. Finally, after almost 30 years, the times have caught up with it.
"Nothing but a Man" is one of the most sensitive films about black life ever made in this country. And for those close to film, and who've known about its existence for a long time, this revival is long overdue.
The filmmakers behind this extraordinary picture have been through this game before. Just three years ago, director, co-writer and co-producer Michael Roemer and his longtime collaborator, co-producer and photographer Richard Young brought back their 1969 "The Plot Against Harry" -- another film that was ahead of its time -- to great acclaim. This movie, though, is in another class altogether.
In its own observant, understated way, the movie is devastatingly powerful. Even while Duff and Josie (Ivan Dixon and Abbey Lincoln) are still courting, the deck seems to be stacked against them. When they pull their car over to talk for a while on their first date, a couple of white boys shine a flashlight through the window, giving Josie the once-over with the beam. It's just hassling, but it's also a way of life. And most of the blacks in town -- in the country, for that matter -- have long ago made their adjustments to the injustice of it. And they've learned to "go along" with the white man and accept their place as inferiors, not because they believe it but because it's the path of least resistance.
"Make 'em think you're going along, and then get what you want," Josie's preacher father (Stanley Greene) tells Duff. But Duff's not listening. He won't answer when the white bosses call "Boy." Or laugh at their jokes when they're not funny. And when he's asked by a white supervisor to apologize for urging his black co-workers to stick together, he refuses and gets fired.
Later he gets a job at a gas station, but he's run off from there as well by a carload of whites who insult his wife (saying things like "I wouldn't mind having a little bit of that myself"), then threaten to blow the place up if this uppity black isn't canned immediately.
And yet the movie isn't about racism or prejudice per se. Though it deals with such issues as the shortage of jobs for blacks and the roots of poverty, its focus is not political or sociological. "Nothing but a Man" is a compassionate film about human problems that's careful to anchor its story not in rhetoric but in the lives of real people.
Basically, the movie is about respect. And perhaps no other film has captured so completely the everyday details of living in a country that, in essence, belongs to others. Or has shown how grinding and constant the commonplace slights and insults, the denials and closed doors, can be.
In this world, Duff is a radical, a troublemaker. And instead of support and solidarity, he meets with resistance -- even from his black friends, who urge him to take it easy and get smart and kowtow to whitey. And when he refuses, they shake their heads in sympathy for this troubled man who seems determined to bring pain to himself and his family.
Josie's father and mother are proper middle-class people with solid Christian values who wish only the best for their daughter. But because Duff is poor and didn't go to college as she did, they oppose the marriage. Like everyone else, the reverend begs his new son-in-law to settle down, sink roots and learn to go with the flow. But Duff lashes back with anger. "At least she ain't married to no white man's nigger," he tells Josie's father. "You been stoopin' for so long you don't know how to stand up. You're only half a man."
All of the performances are beautifully and simply drawn. Ivan Dixon (best known from "Hogan's Heroes") gives a spectacular depiction of a strong, principled individual who will not bend over for any man, white or black. It's an early portrait of black pride, presented long before showing pride in being black was accepted. Lincoln (who is still active as a singer on the jazz scene) gives a restrained, unmannered performance as Josie, a woman who stands steadfastly by her man, even when, out of frustration, he angrily pushes her away. And as Duff's father -- a rage-filled drunk who advises his son not to get married but to stay loose and keep moving -- Milton Williams is so embittered and destroyed that his speeches nearly take off a layer of skin.
Though the film was written, directed and produced by whites, it still manages to enter deeply into the humiliation of second-class citizenship. In one speech, Duff says of white men, "They can reach right inside you with their white hands and turn you on and off." "Nothing but a Man" shows what it is like to live without the basic necessities of dignity and respect -- what it's like to live under another man's thumb. Watching this film, which has sat on the shelf for so long, we are forced to confront not only what we were but what we are, how far we've come, and how far we still have to go.
Copyright The Washington Post