Nothing But a Man, dir: Michael Roemer, 1964
Independently released in the mid-60s, Roemer’s film is a tightly focused and poetic examination of the African-American experience that all marginalized voices can relate to. It was screened for the first time in the UK this Autumn, at the BFI. A film about young love in the face of very real and often crippling America; we follow the main characters Duff (Ivan Dixon) and Josie (Abbey Lincoln) on their journey as newlyweds to find a safe space for them to start a family.
The opening sequence reminded us of the now iconic recurring scenes from Charles Burnett’s Killer of Sheep, another landmark of American cinema that centers around the daily experiences of an African-American working class community. Both films emphasize the physically and emotionally draining nature of the menial work these men are forced to do because of their race and class.
Concepts of masculinity and the role of men are explored through the past and future of three generations of Black men. We can see why this was Malcolm X’s favourite film. Duff begins his journey alone much like a nomad but the microcosmic effect of a wider social climate forced him to confront the church and marriage as social functions, the mirco-aggressions of white men and the reluctance of black workers to organise and form a union. Power and autonomy are strong themes that run throughout. Who has it, who doesn’t and why.
The quiet sweetness of Duff and Josie’s relationship was often juxtaposed to their neighbours and peers who had long left the honeymoon period. They laugh and play into the night with Mary Wells, rocking them until an argument between their neighbours quickly remind the them of the fate of many black families when societal pressures infiltrate the family home and aid in the relationship breakdown between husband and wife. Josie is perceived to be the naive, sheltered daughter of a Pastor but she offered the most profound and piercing commentary about her peers; reflecting her defiant but peaceful spirit something that Duff eventually finds solace in as his partner in life.
DUFF AND JOSIE'S BEDROOM (Night)
Duff watches Josie. She is sitting at her dressing table.
How come you don't hate their guts?
I don't know. I guess I'm not afraid of them.
You were plenty scared that night in the car.
Just of getting hurt. They can't touch me
Like hell they can't.
(he gets up)
They can reach right in with their damn white
hands and turn you off and on.
Not if you see them for what they are, Duff.
You can watch it here.