Mixed Media: ‘Nothing But a Man’

Nothing But a Man’, a ‘lost’ black 1960s American film was recently screened at the National Film Theatre on the South Bank in London. It won the San Giorgio Prize at the 1964 Venice Film Festival then disappeared although it was released in 16mm format and found a black audience when it was shown in churches and schools. It was re-released in the USA in 1993 when the US National Film Registry at the Library of Congress selected the film for preservation as ‘culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant’.              

Nothing But a Man’ was made by white New York liberal Jews, the director and writer was the German Jewish Michael Roemer who had fled the Nazis, and the producer, cinematographer and co-writer Robert M Young. Roemer and Young with the help of the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) travelled to the South for three months to research the script for Nothing But a Man.

‘Nothing But a Man’ was filmed in the Summer of 1963 on a budget of $230,000 around Atlantic City and Cape May in New Jersey although set in Alabama which was out of the question as a film location. This was the time of the civil rights movement, and Alabama Governor George Wallace’s support for ‘segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever’, and the existence of ‘Jim Crow Laws’ (mandated de jure racial segregation) in the South. Everyone on the film crew was paid $100 per week, the crew and cast took the day off to march on Washington DC with Martin Luther King Jr.

‘Nothing But a Man’ tells of the relationship and rather sweet courtship between Duff, a railroad worker and Josie, a schoolteacher and daughter of a preacher against a background of economic, social and institutional racism and deals with the discrimination, lack of jobs for blacks, and poverty in American society. Duff is played by Ivan Dixon later in the TV series Hogan’s Heroes, and Josie by jazz singer Abbey Lincoln who sang on Max Roach’s We Insist! Freedom Now Suite 1960 civil rights jazz album. The film is notable for its Motown soundtrack of Smokey Robinson, Mary Wells, Martha and the Vandellas, and Little Stevie Wonder.

‘Nothing But a Man’ is a pioneering drama about African-American life, ‘one of the most sensitive films about black life ever made in this country’ (Washington Post 10 July 1993), and an early portrait of black pride and anger. Duff says ‘They can reach right inside you with their white hands and turn you on and off’. The film was Malcolm X’s favourite and was endorsed by the Nation of Islam newspaper Muhammad Speaks. The film is emotionally powerful with its portrait of Duff’s embittered alcoholic father who was maimed at work in a sawmill, Duff’s attacks on Josie’s preacher father as a ‘white man’s nigger, you been stoopin’ for so long you don’t know how to stand up. You’re only half a man’, and the heart aches with lines like ‘It’s not gonna be easy but everything’s gonna be alright’ and ‘I feel so free inside’.

‘Nothing But a Man’ has a naturalistic and neo-realist style that is in stark contrast to the Hollywood liberal middle-America films about African-Americans such as Lilies of the Field, and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? It can be compared to the cinéma vérité of Fred Hampton’s Chicago Black Panther Party in Medium Cool by Haskell Wexler and the Paul Schrader film Blue Collar about Detroit car workers which starred Yaphet Kotto who was also in ‘Nothing But a Man’.

‘Nothing But a Man’ is set in the period of Bob Dylan’s The Times They Are a-Changin’, but how much did life change for African-Americans in American capitalist society with the Civil Rights, Voting Rights and Fair Housing Acts?

In 2010 law professor and civil rights activist Michelle Alexander wrote in The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness that there are more African American men in prison than were slaves before the start of the Civil War. 846,000 black men were in prison comprising 40 percent of the total when African Americans comprise 13.6 percent of the U.S. Population. More African American men were disenfranchised due to felony convictions in 2004 than in 1870, the year the Fifteenth Amendment was ratified prohibiting laws that explicitly deny the right to vote on the basis of race.

The black and white working class need to realise that they create the world’s wealth and that their interests are in common irrespective of race and when the united black and white working class recognise this they can solve their problems by abolishing capitalism.


Leave a Reply