Thanks to The Greatest Cable Channel Known to Mankind™, I was able to DVR a feature film that’s been on my “must-see” list for many years now. The groundbreaking independent feature Nothing But a Man (1964) was selected to the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry in 1993 (the same year it was restored and received a re-release) and made available on DVD in 2004…but the movie that Boston Globe critic Wesley Morris called “one of the two best movies ever made about black life in America” (the other, according to Morris, is 1977’s Killer of Sheep…which I have seen) eluded the House of Yesteryear until its TCM premiere on Monday, January 20th.
Duff Anderson (Ivan Dixon) is a railroad section worker who meets schoolteacher Josie Dawson (Abbey Lincoln) one night at a church social in a small town near Birmingham, Alabama. (Josie’s father [Stanley Greene] is the minister of that church.) They date each other on multiple occasions, but Duff is reluctant to get involved in a serious relationship because her parents disapprove of Duff…and because Duff has struggled with responsibility throughout his life. Anderson takes a day trip to Birmingham to check in on his illegitimate four-year-old son, whose mother has run off to Detroit (with her new husband) and is now in the care of a woman not too crazy about taking care of the little nipper in the first place (she’s got quite a brood of her own).
Birmingham is also home to Duff’s father Will (Julius Harris), a sick alcoholic who’s being looked after by his girlfriend Lee (Gloria Foster). Seeing up close how Will abusively treats his caretaker has a profound effect on Duff, who opts for family stability rather than continue his drifting ways. Duff and Josie marry, but Duff is insistent that his illegitimate son not move in with him—instead, they’re going to try for a family of their own.
Duff exudes an independence that comes across as arrogance to many—he’s particularly nauseated by the behavior of Reverend Dawson, who Duff believes has kowtowed to condescending white people in order to maintain a certain social and economic status. Having quit the railroad for a lower-paying sawmill job that will ensure his intention for family stability, Anderson soon finds himself unemployed after his white bosses interpret his “we’ve-all-got-to-stick-together” rhetoric to his fellow sawmill workers as rabble-rousing union organizing. (They demand he retract his statement, and he refuses.) It’s difficult for Duff to find work after that: he’s blacklisted by other area sawmills and when he finally lands a job at a gas station (thanks to his father-in-law) Duff has to quit after a group of joy-riding peckerwoods start a campaign of harassment. All of this, in turn, puts a severe strain on his and Josie’s marriage.
Actor Ivan Dixon is fondly remembered by couch potatoes of my vintage as POW Staff Sergeant James “Kinch” Kinchloe on the sitcom Hogan’s Heroes, which tends to overshadow a lot of his other splendid TV work, including memorable guest appearances on The Twilight Zone (“The Big Tall Wish”), Laramie, and The Fugitive (“Escape into Black”), just to name a few. Dixon also has nice turns in such features as A Raisin in the Sun (1961) and A Patch of Blue (1965)—both of which star his friend Sidney Poitier, who was offered the lead in Nothing But a Man but turned it down—and later turned his talents behind the camera as a director-producer, helming such features as Trouble Man (1972) and The Spook Who Sat by the Door (1973) and episodes of small screen favorites as The Waltons, The Rockford Files, and Magnum P.I.
Dixon’s performance as Duff in Nothing But a Man was purportedly the one for which he was the proudest. It’s a simply sensational portrayal of a complicated man; Duff does things that makes us cringe (the scene where he angrily shoves a pregnant Josie to the floor still packs an emotional wallop) but it’s hard not to sympathize with an individual who embodies to me the sentiment of John Steinbeck’s Tom Joad in The Grapes of Wrath: “I’m just trying to get along without shoving anybody, that’s all.” His lashing out at Josie occurs only after he’s spent most of the movie stoically swallowing insults and ignoring abuse from a Jim Crow society where he’s truly uncomfortable (though he states it’s not much better in the North). Most of the time he’s quiet and reserved (his dating of Josie in the early scenes is the only time he really opens up), only communicating what he’s thinking with a beaming smile.
Nothing But a Man marked the film debuts of Yaphet Kotto and Julius Harris; Harris was working as a male nurse in NYC when, on a dare, he auditioned for the role of Will Anderson and got the part. Harris is quite good as the ne’er-do-well dad, though he’s admittedly overshadowed by Gloria Foster as Lee—a woman who for all intents and purposes should kick Will to the curb but can’t because she loves him too much. Foster is able to convey complete agony and anguish with just a solitary look, and one of my favorite scenes in the movie finds Duff, Will, and Lee in a neighborhood dive when Duff asks Lee to dance to a tune on the jukebox. It’s a fleeting moment of liberation for Lee (despite being beaten down by life, she seems to enjoy the spin on the dance floor), a woman who isn’t presented with many opportunities to forget her troubles.
Sharp-eyed viewers will catch Mel Stewart (Henry Jefferson on All in the Family) as one of Duff’s fellow railroad workers, while future Good Times star Esther Rolle is a member of the church congregation and Moses Gunn (who played Rolle’s husband on that show once John Amos left) as a mill worker. Nothing but a Man was directed by Michael Roemer, who co-wrote the screenplay with Thrilling Days of Yesteryear favorite Robert M. Young (Short Eyes, Alambrista!). Nothing had a limited run upon its initial release (which was also the fate of Roemer’s The Plot Against Harry—a film made in 1969 but not released until twenty years later), which probably kept it out of major Academy Award competition (it did win a few prizes at the Venice Film Festival, including the New Cinema Award of Best Actress for jazz great Lincoln). It’s a remarkable film, and kudos to TCM for making it available to viewers.