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‘Nothing but a Man’ (NR)

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
July 09, 1993

It's disheartening when an ace like "Nothing but a Man" gets lost in the shuffle. After a standing ovation at the New York Film Festival and two prizes at Venice, this 1964 movie about black self assertion -- written by two white filmmakers -- was passed over by every major studio. After Cinema V, a distribution company, picked it up, "Nothing" had a brief tour of the arthouse-ghetto circuit, before sinking into oblivion.

Thanks to director Michael Roemer's "The Plot Against Harry," another previously ignored work which resurfaced recently, "Nothing but a Man" is back as if 30 years hadn't happened. Although a limited engagement at the Biograph this week is more art-house temporariness, the movie will soon be available in video. In whatever form you see it (and, of course, the movie screen is always best), "Nothing but a Man" remains as triumphantly timely as ever. A quietly stirring, beautiful little movie shot in black and white, it hasn't aged a microsecond.

In the story, scripted by Roemer and his regular collaborator (and cinematographer) Robert Young, Duff (Ivan Dixon) has spent most of his life on the move, first with the army and now with a railroad repair gang. He moves around the country, fixing tracks, living in boxcars and cooling social heels in pool halls.

Working on a train line in a small Alabama town, the young black man finds himself amid a black community that -- on the eve of the turbulent '60s -- knows its lowly place. When Duff meets and falls for the Baptist minister's daughter Josie (Abbey Lincoln), the carefree wanderer is forced to confront entrenched segregation, wholesome human relationships and his own self worth for the first time.

Josie, an educated teacher and a sheltered daughter, is of a higher social order than Duff. But she sees in him an unfettered manliness. Duff is clearly a cut above his bawdy colleagues (including an engagingly youthful Yaphet Kotto). But he's somewhat unnerved at this mutually respectful relationship, which has marriage stamped all over it. Beautiful Josie's unstinting faith in him -- even at his lowest moments -- makes such a union attractive.

Duff's political and moral consciousness -- interrupted fitfully by self doubt -- grows slowly but surely, as he encounters obstacles on every level. Josie's father, who is against the impending wedding, advocates eyes-down respect for the white man. When Duff seeks local employment, the white employers he talks to demand Jim Crow servility. He also reassesses his relationship with an illegitimate son in Birmingham he hasn't seen in two years; and he looks up his irascible, drunken father (Julius Harris) who left his mother before Duff was born.

"Nothing but a Man," photographed evocatively by Young, has a documentary-like sureness. The most melodramatic situations -- racist teenagers catching Duff and Josie in a car at night, a carload of good old boys confronting Duff at a gas station -- are subtly etched, unhysterical affairs. Yet they don't lack for powerful, dramatic tension. As Duff, Dixon's reaction to these and other troubles is similarly understated. He openly rejects the oppression around him not by grandstanding, but with a calm refusal to play the role whites continually force him into.

His powerful self-restraint speaks volumes to these men; they recognize a spirit that won't be broken. Without realizing it, Duff is heralding the coming decade of black power and self-determination. He's also learning about himself. The great thing about this movie is the rising moral power of an individual who learns how to stand up and say no. It's a triumph not just for this black character, not just for black audiences, but for everyone.

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