Although he only made two fiction features, filmmaker Michael Roemer benefited greatly from an early ‘90s rediscovery, thanks to the fortuitous unearthing of a movie he made in 1969, The Plot Against Harry, a wry, dry comedy starring Martin Priest. His other film, 1964’s Nothing But a Man, is often compared by critics to the slicker, middle-America-friendly films Sidney Poitier was making during the same era. Almost without exception, movies about the minority experience in 1960s America were smoothed-over paeans to “the triumph of the human spirit,” starring or co-starring whites whose presence is required as witnesses, arbiters, and the final, thankful beneficiaries of growth and change. Bland but well-meaning, movies like Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? and A Patch of Blue, seeking to instruct the white moviegoer by giving them a diagrammatic path to sociopolitical enlightenment, had a funny habit of discounting, even nullifying, the black experience.
It can’t be overstated just how Nothing But a Man is militantly tone-deaf to the Hollywood muzak of race relations. For starters, it’s distinguished by a script (by Roemer and Robert M. Young) that eschews superficial overtures to political relevance. With novelistic richness of detail, the saga of ne’er-do-well Duffy (Ivan Dixon) is not one of a secretly soulful misfit who might make something of himself if not for relentless efforts by The Man to keep him down. The film certainly illustrates various, unhappy dealings Duffy has with white locals, in and out of the workplace. But the film stubbornly refuses to help the audience figure out where deeply ingrained Southern American racism ends and Duffy’s obstinate, deeply unhappy self-regard begins. He crosses paths with discrimination and suffers; even white bosses who are kind to him are terrible in their own small way. But the real journey of Nothing But a Man is that of Duffy looking into himself and not liking what he sees. Not one bit.
There’s such sweetness in the film; the courtship between Duffy and Josie (Abbey Lincoln) is one of the most commonly cited aspects of the movie’s appeal. They keep smiling during those first few dates. But while, throughout much of the first half, smiles are ever-present, they’re never unqualified signifiers of a character’s happiness. Smiles sometimes serve as a genteel alibi for sexual desire. Or, when Duffy is with his blue-collar pals, smiles may mask envy, verbal sparring, or bitter recriminations that have no other outlet. The first line in the film is “Go to hell, Frankie,” delivered with a smile by Yaphet Kotto to Leonard Parker, the latter wearing a mischievous grin of his own.
When things begin to go wrong, Duffy sometimes smiles because it’s either that or break something. He travels to meet his father (an astonishing Julius Harris), and, now face to face with the possibility that his lot in life is a matter of like-father-like-son genetic coding, the dimensions of his self-loathing increase exponentially. Things get quite a bit worse before the movie allows that they might, in time, get better.
Nothing But a Man earns its political heft, paradoxically, by dedicating itself to specifics of the characters’ day-to-day lives. Roemer’s subdued style, a theater of “the real,” similar to something like Shirley Clarke’s The Connection or Kent MacKenzie’s The Exiles, ensures that what Duffy goes through really carries a string. It’s not so much the point-to-point journey his character undertakes, how what he sees and experiences changes him, as the fact that—true to film’s title—Duffy is finally, irreducibly a man, and his choices, whether they come from his hopes or his emotional sickness, are his own.