Wednesday, September 16, 2020

Nothing But a Man

Director Michael Roemer

NOTHING BUT A MAN        A+                
USA  (95 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)          

One of the better films that reveals what it means and how it feels to be black, reportedly Malcolm X’s favorite film, this is arguably the best black film ever made in America, set in Alabama’s Deep South in the early 60’s, though interestingly enough it was actually made by a white guy, Michael Roemer, born in Berlin, Germany, who fled the Holocaust as an 11-year old child on the Kindertransports, coming after his mother’s family shoe store was destroyed during Kristallnacht.  In the early 30’s Nazis organized boycotts of Jewish businesses in Germany, publically burned Jewish and non-German books in Berlin, established quotas for non-Aryans in schools, and excluded Jews from public parks and swimming pools, with the director remembering having to sit on separate yellow benches when Jews were denied entrance into movies theaters, circumstances eerily similar to blacks in the Jim Crow South, with white supremacy resembling Nazi racialization, especially in its impact on families.  Made on a $300,000 budget during the dawn of the Civil Rights era, the production coincided with the civil rights insurgency and benefited from input from activists, shot during the tumultuous summer of 1963 simultaneous to the Medgar Evers’ assassination, George Wallace preaching “segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever” while standing in the doorway blocking the entrance of two black students at the University of Alabama, the March on Washington, the site of Martin Luther King’s infamous “I Had A Dream” speech, and they were still filming the day four young girls were killed by bombs at the Sixteenth Street Church in Birmingham.  Both Roemer and his co-writer and cinematographer Robert M. Young were Jewish, educated at Harvard University, and wrote the script after traveling through the South together, with Roemer directing the black-and-white film using a neorealist style, giving it a near documentary look.  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.  With no sympathetic white figures in the film, it was misunderstood and undervalued by white critics, largely ignored at the box office, with viewers finding it underwhelming, but the film was years ahead of its time, with Ebony magazine listing the film among their Top Ten Black Films of All Time in a 1995 poll, revealing essential truths about being black that other films ignored, effortlessly conveying a poetic depiction of everyday black realities, a predecessor to small black independent films like Charles Burnett’s Killer of Sheep (1979) and Billy Woodberry’s Bless Their Little Hearts (1983), which received greater acclaim, largely due to their accessibility, part of an academically studied movement, the LA Rebellion, catalog (pdf), while this harder-to-find film has continually been relegated to the obscure.  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 referred to as “boy” and “trouble” while being goaded into unwelcome confrontations from racist taunts where he refuses to buckle under the patronizing humiliation of ignorant whites who expect him to “act the nigger” and play the subservient game of bowing down to white authority, 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 black men as a nomadic railroad worker, making good money, a loner out on his own not beholden to anybody.  But when he falls for a preacher’s daughter at a church social outside Birmingham, Alabama, Josie (jazz singer 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 YouTube (2:43) or Little Stevie Wonder - Fingertips. (Part 2) - YouTube (3:13), adding an overall sense of upbeat optimism, like seeing the couple develop an interest in one another dancing on a crowded dance floor, 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 openly 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, despite the objections of her father, developing a low key relationship not usually shown in motion pictures, with a distinct class difference, as she grew up in a middle class background and teaches elementary school, having gone to college.  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 straits financially.  Usually he’d just hit the road, but now he’s part of a marriage.  Each time he runs off, he comes face to face with his seldom seen father (Julius Harris) who abandoned him at a young age, a bitter, broken down alcoholic who has nothing but rage against the world around him, unfortunately maimed by an industrial accident, no longer able to work, who would probably be dead were it not for the care of the strong woman beside him, Lee (Gloria Foster), continually railing against his own son as well, telling him to “get lost.”  He also visits a little 4-year old boy born out of wedlock, whose mother has taken off and left the child behind with another woman, viewing his father with that sad, fearful look of distrust.  Yet when he’s angry, he denies that’s even his child, but he nonetheless sends money regularly.  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, though he’s tested to the limits, behaving atrociously at times when his back is against the wall, undermined by generations of black passive indifference to the demeaning arrogance of white supremacy that has ruled since slavery days, exploiting black work aspirations and destroying family lives, refusing any suggestions of blacks aligning together, as that means losing their livelihood, leaving him singled out and isolated, placed on a do not hire blacklist around town for similar jobs, Nothing But a Man YouTube (2:32). 

Despite the bleak and unforgiving landscape for blacks in the Jim Crow South, described in great detail by American novelists William Faulkner and Richard Wright, or adapted movie novels like To Kill a Mockingbird (1962), blacks remained subject to white-controlled work places in town, along with a constant reminder that a lynching occurred in town eight years ago, perhaps a reference to the horrific 1955 murder of Emmett Till in nearby Mississippi, yet what’s ultimately so revealing is the discovery that Duff is living in a world that belongs to others, who set the rules and conditions, and define the allowable parameters of his existence.  This has never been so plainly and so sensitively revealed, as it defines black existence in America then and now, continually living under the thumb of white majority rule.  The film doesn’t so much tell a story as let one unravel before our eyes, conveyed with understatement, accenting naturalism and authenticity, though mostly shot on location in New Jersey, yet the images of low-down bars, streets and houses overrun by children, and rows of dilapidated tenements represent Birmingham’s poor black district, while the opening montage of a railroad section gang laying tracks was filmed during their earlier travels through the South.  Special recognition must be paid for the attention to black faces in the many close-ups, producing a depth and intimacy of images rarely seen before in filming black characters, where much of the underlying power of the film comes from the brilliant performances that allow viewers 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 blacks are allowed to live are dilapidated neighborhoods, where neglected children are the product of so many uncaring or absent fathers that a sense of worthlessness becomes synonymous with their deplorable living conditions, producing a righteous anger that eventually comes to define them.  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, refusing to defer to white men, even at the cost of a job.  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 the sting of rebuke.  Their marriage is no picnic either and there are some rocky moments, but perhaps most significantly, this film offers no easy solutions.  Yet the profound depth of character is strikingly lucid, casting a harsh light on those blacks who do abandon their families, only making things that much more difficult for those they leave behind, perhaps removing the only hope they have, which weakens the already fragile state of broken black families and community.  Offering a dissertation on black masculinity, the film impressively reveals an inherent capacity for love while enduring endless racial threats, while also highlighting the significance and stability of female support, both emotionally and financially, becoming a brilliant depiction of a troubled life mirroring the upheaval of social change during the Civil Rights era, with details specific to the story’s time and place, which remain universally impactful, with the film being selected to the Library of Congress National Film Registry in 1993.          

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