Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Gumshoes Reviews: Nothing But A Man (1964)

This the first of what I hope to be a series of movie reviews.

Nothing But a Man (1964)
Shot in Birmingham, Alabama in 1962, Nothing But A Man tells the story of Duff (Ivan Dixon), a Black man in his mid 20s who has a habit of standing up for himself against the White man. Duff starts off as one of an all-black team of nomadic railroad builders. When he meets Josie (Abbey Lincoln), a preacher's daughter, he decides to quit the railroad and settle down with her in Birmingham, a venture that may be tougher than he imagined.

Nothing But A Man was written and directed by two white filmmakers (Robert M Young and Michael Roemer), but the film maintains a gaze that is fearless. The social realism of the film is quite raw for a pre-Vietnam film, depicting authentic poverty and self-abuse. Though the story is mostly bitter, there are sweet moments that feel genuine. The white characters are insensitive, but not demonic. The filmmakers thankfully saw no point in catering to Hollywood-style pandering. There isn't a token non-racist white guy or girl, which would have just been a distraction. Duff's understanding of what it is to be a confident but confused man of African descent in his time and place is what the film primarily aims to explore.

The story moves along at a constant jog, which does not allow the viewer to wallow in the misfortune of Duff and Josie, but rather to breathlessly stagger through it. I found this to be in some ways a disservice to Josie, who's quiet but refined character becomes pushed to the sidelines halfway through the film. Nonetheless, her character is never tarnished by hysteria, as young wife characters are so often tarnished in movies, even nowadays.

The soundtrack is amazing and before its time. It features singles from Motown Records artists such as Martha and the Vandellas and Stevie Wonder. These songs are used as a sly juxtaposition with the somber story. the film depicts Black life in the South without the sugar coating, offering raw, sobering kitchen sink realism that was rare in its time and still uncommon today.

If you are interested in a similar film made by a Black filmmaker, also check the landmark micro-budget indie film The Killer of Sheep (1977) by Charles Burnett. It follows a young Black father working in a slaughter house in Watts.

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