Thursday, February 23, 2012

Nothing But a Man

NOTHING BUT A MAN        A                    
USA  (92 mi) 1964  d:  Michael Roemer

One way for local whites to take the strut out of a black man’s step was to put him in prison...Southerners who had just lost a war managed to convince courts to put hundreds of black men in prison, including black soldiers.      
—from the book Ain’t Nothing But a Man, by Scott Reynolds Nelson

But when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim; when you have seen hate-filled policemen curse, kick and even kill your black brothers and sisters; when you see the vast majority of your twenty million Negro brothers smothering in an airtight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society; when you suddenly find your tongue twisted and your speech stammering as you seek to explain to your six-year-old daughter why she can't go to the public amusement park that has just been advertised on television, and see tears welling up in her eyes when she is told that Funtown is closed to colored children, and see ominous clouds of inferiority beginning to form in her little mental sky, and see her beginning to distort her personality by developing an unconscious bitterness toward white people...then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait.
—Martin Luther King Jr. from April 16, 1963, Letter from Birmingham Jail full text

I ain’t fit to live with no more. It’s just like a lynching. They don’t use a knife, but they got other ways.   
—Duff Anderson (Ivan Dixon)

Reportedly Malcolm X’s favorite film, this is one of the best black films ever made in America, set in Alabama’s Deep South in the early 60’s, is interestingly enough actually made by a white guy, Michael Roemer, born in Germany and educated at Harvard University, who co-wrote and directed the film using a more European, social realist style, giving it a near documentary look.  Shot during the dawn of the Civil Rights era, both Roemer and his co-writer and cinematographer Robert M. Young were Jewish and wrote the script after traveling through the South together.  What distinguishes the film is the remarkable ease in telling the story without a hint of condescension or manipulation, no preaching, no moral crusading, no underlying political message, and never resorting to caricature or exaggeration for added emphasis.  Instead it just tells it like it is.  Never once do we hear music swelling to emphasize a poignant moment and the end credits play without a sound.  There’s not a false step anywhere in this landmark picture, beautifully directed with an assured, understated style that reeks of authenticity and serves as a time capsule that holds up unusually well even after 50 years.  Ivan Dixon as Duff Anderson gives one of the great unheralded performances in American film, smart, proud, a sexy swagger to his step, extremely dignified, never overreaching, usually calm and quiet, a strong, silent type, but his life is a neverending series of exasperating events, continually being goaded into unwelcome confrontations by racist taunts where he refuses to buckle under the humiliation of ignorant whites who expect him to “act the nigger” and play the game of bowing down to white superiority, as that’s what’s always been expected in this neck of the woods.  

It ain’t pretty, but it’s real, where the film does an excellent job laying a foundation of his well respected and confident demeanor working and joking among fellow blacks as a nomadic railroad worker.  But when he falls for a preacher’s daughter at a church social outside Birmingham, Alabama, Josie (Abbey Lincoln), a proud and irresistibly beautiful woman, their romance is accompanied by a backdrop of contemporary Motown songs playing on a jukebox or the radio, like Martha and the Vandella’s “Heat Wave” Martha & the Vandellas - (Love Is Like A) Heat Wave on YouTube (2:43), which predates the use of culturally relevant rock music in movies like Easy Rider (1969) or early Scorsese movies like Mean Streets (1973).  When they decide to get married, there’s little fanfare, as her father (Stanley Greene) is suspicious of a man who never went to college and doesn’t go to church, believing that his daughter deserves better.  But they’re happy in an easy going kind of way, a low key relationship not usually shown in motion pictures.  But their marriage suffers as he experiences a series of job setbacks where he’s forced to endure local insults, always being labeled a troublemaker for refusing to shuffle and jive for the white man, losing one job after another which puts them in desperate straights financially.  Usually he’d just hit the road, but now he’s part of a marriage.  Interesting that Josie’s father gives Duff a word of advice, suggesting he “act the part,” calling it a form of psychology to “make 'em think you're going along and get what you want.”  Duff has a few words of his own for the preacher, “You've been stooping so long, Reverend, you don't know how to stand straight.  You're just half a man.”  Like De Niro in a Scorsese film, Duff’s refusal to compromise his pride is what distinguishes his character, and his strong sense of self-respect is precisely what Josie finds so remarkably attractive about him.   

Despite the bleak and unforgiving landscape for blacks in the Jim Crow South, the film doesn’t so much tell a story as let one life unravel before our eyes, where the brilliant performances in the film allow the audience to immerse themselves in the predominately black cultural themes, like juke joints and church (featuring a brilliant gospel solo by Dorothy Hall), men getting blacklisted for standing up for themselves, where the only work available for blacks is back-breakingly hard labor that physically wears people out, where if they get injured or old, they’re of no use to anyone anymore, including themselves.  Without a job, forced to wallow in their worthlessness and self-loathing, their lives consist of sitting on their front stoops doing nothing, wasted in the mind-numbing void of alcohol abuse, where the only places to live are dilapidated living conditions, where there are so many uncaring or absent fathers, poor schools, and where violence becomes synonymous with black living conditions, a state of mind that eventually comes to live inside your head somewhere.  This cycle of generational dysfunction hits Duff in the face like a ton of bricks, and he’s determined not to let it happen to him, where he chooses to be different, to be a responsible man, even as the world around him won’t let him.  The film reflects the obstacles he faces, the anger, the indignation, the wretched helplessness he feels as he attempts to wade through the minefield of daily disasters waiting for him.  But never does he feel sorry for himself, or give up hope, but he does feel a righteous anger.  Their marriage is no picnic and there are some rocky moments, but perhaps most significantly, this film offers no easy solutions.  Yet its portrait of a weary life and a man tired even before his adult life begins is strikingly lucid, casting a harsh light on those blacks who do abandon their families, only making things worse for those they leave behind, perhaps removing the only hope they have, which weakens the already fragile state of broken black families and community.  A brilliant depiction of a troubled life during the tumultuous Civil Rights era, the film was selected to the Library of Congress National Film Registry in 1993. 

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