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The Politics and Poetics of Black Film: Nothing But a Man

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Written and directed by two white men and performed by an all-black cast, Nothing But a Man (Michael Roemer, 1964) tells the story of a drifter turned family man who struggles with the pressures of small-town life and the limitations placed on him and his community in the Deep South, an area long fraught with racism. Though unmistakably about race and civil rights, the film makes no direct reference to the civil rights movement. Despite this intentional absence, contemporary audiences were acutely aware of the social context for the film's indictment of white prejudice in America. To help frame and situate the film in the context of black film studies, the book gathers primary and secondary resources, including the original screenplay, essays on the film, statements by the filmmakers, and interviews with Robert M. Young, the film’s producer and cinematographer, and Khalil Gibran Muhammad, the Director of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture.

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Introduction: Nothing But a Man and the Question of Black Film

ePub

David C. Wall and Michael T. Martin

THE QUESTION OF WHAT PRECISELY CONSTITUTES BLACK FILM is a vexing one. Even the way the question is worded can affect how we might frame our considerations and come to our conclusions. “What is black film?” is, after all, a very different question to “what is a black film?” In considering this critically important issue, it might seem odd to turn to the work of two white filmmakers but, in many ways, a “black film” made by whites serves as a peculiarly productive point of departure. In view of that, this volume concentrates on a classic of American independent cinema, Michael Roemer and Robert Young’s Nothing But a Man (1964). It is an extraordinary film that is, at one and the same time, a romantic melodrama, a neorealist expression of the class struggle, a radical examination of racial subjectivity, a celebration of the nuclear family, and a dissertation on black masculinity. It reveals a complicated concatenation of racial and cultural discourses that weave through the film and swirl around its production, dissemination, and consumption.

 

Michael Roemer

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THESE COMMENTS ABOUT NOTHING BUT A MAN REFLECT HOW it looks to me fifty years after we made it. If I had not come to see the film differently from the way it seemed at the time we shot it, I could not have gone on to make other films without repeating myself. Rendering our reality today seems possible only if we continually challenge our own assumptions. But I hope nothing I say here puts me out of touch with those who have been moved by it.

Robert Young and I became friends as undergraduates and stayed in touch after graduation but didn’t actually work together until we were in our thirties. Though he was in documentaries and I in fiction, we shared a similar perspective and were not persuaded by most American movies at that time. In 1962 we shot a documentary about a generational slum in Palermo that we felt was the best film either of us had made. When NBC, who had sponsored it, pulled it off the air as unfit for the American living room, we left the network. We were determined to continue working together, and Bob suggested that the young African Americans he had met on his 1960 NBC White Paper documentary “Sit-In” would make a good feature film on a subject close to his heart.

 

Robert Young

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FORTY-EIGHT YEARS HAD PASSED SINCE MIKE ROEMER AND I made Nothing But a Man, so I attended the symposium at Indiana University dedicated both to it and The Spook Who Sat by the Door with great interest and anticipation. This was my first invitation to participate in a formal discussion about the film, and it was highly satisfying to see renewed critical attention after all this time. A most interesting and illuminating experience, the symposium demonstrated that a piece of work no longer belongs to its creators once it’s out in the world. Of course, that is the way it should be. The discussions and comments were relevant and thoughtful and reflected the myriad of personal experiences and insights of the speakers.

Nothing But a Man was first exhibited at the Venice Film Festival in the fall of 1964 (where it received two major awards) and in New York City at the New York Film Festival later that fall. Its enthusiastic reception at the festivals led to an agreement with a New York distributor and its theatrical release on Christmas Eve at the Sutton theater in New York City. It was widely reviewed and publicized yet, while most of the reviews were favorable, it had a limited theatrical release. Black audiences were not truly welcome in many theaters across the country at this time, particularly theaters in the South where the film had little distribution. At its exhibition at the Sutton, Mike Roemer and I were appalled that it was being promoted as an art film. The advertisements used the Greek masks for comedy and tragedy rather than photos of the two black actors, Ivan Dixon and Abbey Lincoln, who were the stars of the film, but our complaints had no effect. The distribution and exhibition was completely out of our hands, and our opinions were rejected as being neither commercial nor feasible for getting a large audience.

 

Demanding Dignity: Nothing But a Man

ePub

Bruce Dick and Mark Vogel

IN HIS JANUARY 1963 INAUGURAL ADDRESS AS GOVERNOR OF Alabama, George C. Wallace proclaimed, “I draw the line in the dust and toss the gauntlet before the feet of tyranny, and I say segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.”1 Within days of Wallace’s declaration, disturbances broke out in towns and cities across the state, including Birmingham, where, according to an earlier newspaper report, authorities had used “the whip, the razor, the gun, the bomb, the torch, the club, the knife, the mob, the police and many branches of the state’s apparatus” to ensure racial separation.2 By April, Birmingham police had arrested Martin Luther King Jr. and other prominent ministers for staging sit-ins against discrimination. Riots by local racists broke out and federal troops were sent in to restore order. In spite of military assistance, recalcitrant whites managed to dynamite the basement of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church. When it was all over, four black youth lay dead – one was eleven years old.

 

Nothing But a Man

ePub

Thomas Cripps

IN RECENT YEARS, A SUBGENRE OF BLACK FILM HAS celebrated the heroism of the picaresque outlaw who, like Sir Gawain in mortal combat with the Green Knight, Lancelot in pursuit of the Holy Grail, or Amos Tutuola’s novel Palm Wine Drinkard (1952) in quest of the ultimate high, seeks himself in brave quest outside the benisons of society. The urban outlaw has especially appealed to a number of black writers. The hero of the best novel ever written by a black, Ralph Ellison’s The Invisible Man (1952), came from this picaresque tradition. In black genre film, this outlaw is a combative hero, who roves the city from one adventure to another, each one offering deeper rewards of both self-knowledge and gratitude from the black group in whose name he fought.

Indeed, the urban outlaw often seemed more appealing than the pastoral hero; though rural ambience provided an opportunity to sketch an anatomy of white racism, the urban scene lent itself to rich fantasies of black aggression and rebellion. John Shaft simply called forth more heartfelt response from black audiences because he scored more points against “the system” than did Br’er Rabbit.

 

The Derailed Romance in Nothing But a Man

ePub

Karen Bowdre

NOTHING BUT A MAN (1964) IS A COMPELLING FILM THAT depicts some of the racial and social challenges in the life of an African American railroad worker in the early 1960s. One of the many reasons this film stands out from other films with black casts is its exceptional and complicated portrayal of an African American romantic relationship. Before analyzing this unusual and afflicted cinematic union, I examine Josie Dawson and Duff Anderson as products not only from the minds of Michael Roemer and Robert Young but also as representative of young African American people during a turbulent time socially, culturally, and racially in the United States.

Josie, a teacher and preacher’s daughter, has sporadic dimensionality far beyond what might have been expected of two white filmmakers, Young and Roemer, of the period. Her character is not a compliant child but a grown woman with her own thoughts and ideas. She does not allow the potential class and educational biases of her parents (or larger community) to keep her from becoming involved in a relationship with Duff. Though she still lives with her father, she does not feel obligated to view the world the same way as her father and step-mother do.

 

Can’t Stay, Can’t Go: What Is History to a Cinematic Imagination?

ePub

Terri Francis

FOREGROUNDING THE ARTISTS EXPERIENCE, BOB YOUNGS words quoted here convey his stylistic choices for Nothing But a Man (1964) and they help us to think about the capacity of fiction film to make the past intelligible and to envision varied ways of approaching the relationship between film and history. Young and Michael Roemer, the film’s cowriter and director, chose to make a film whose photography relies not on wide observational, contextual angles but instead on close, “myopic” framing on the face that emphasizes skin, eyes, and mouth. The conflicts in the film are highly personal, between neighbors, between friends, and between family members and they are also the product of historical forces. Indeed, historical and political pressures catalyze the personal dramas on screen; thus, there is no meaningful, sensible, or necessary dichotomy between the personal and the historical here. In Young’s photography, we see the tiny gestures within gestures of a look, of a passing thought, or of an intention. The face is the landscape, the world writ small.

 

Civil Rights, Labor, and Sexual Politics on Screen in Nothing But a Man

ePub

Judith E. Smith

THE FILM NOTHING BUT A MAN OPENS WITH A LONG PAN OF A crew of black railroad workers laying tracks, in a Southern rural landscape. Its first sounds are those of the jackhammer, pounding in the spikes; the camera comes upon the man operating it from behind. The title appears, taken from the refrain of the folk ballad about the legendary black steel-driving man, John Henry. Then the camera shows the face of the jackhammer operator, Ivan Dixon, the film’s steel-driving hero, in two long close-ups. Other black crew members come into focus, laying the rail dropped by a white crane operator. An arresting riff from a blues harmonica joins the soundtrack as the jackhammer sound is dimmed. Nothing But a Man closes with a two-shot of Dixon embracing a pregnant, weeping, Abbey Lincoln, in a modest living room, children’s art on the wall behind them, reassuring her that “It ain’t gonna be easy, baby, but it’s gonna be all right,” ambient sound giving way to the blues harmonica, which plays over the credits.

 

Historicity and Possibility in Nothing But a Man: A Conversation with Khalil Muhammad

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Michael T. Martin and David Wall

MICHAEL T. MARTIN [MTM]: Please elaborate the historical setting for Nothing But a Man and its correspondence to the political economy and actuality of Southern race relations circa the late 1950s–1960s.

KHALIL MUHAMMAD [KM]: The film emerges at a moment when the future of black citizenship in the United States was indeterminate. Recall, it’s the early 1960s and the civil rights movement had stalled after the earlier successes of Brown v. Board of Education [1954], the Montgomery [Alabama] bus boycott [1955], and the integration of Central High in Little Rock, Arkansas [1957]. It’s a period about making real the promises of integration, as well as desegregating all public accommodations, which led to the sit-in movement, culminating in the Freedom Rides of 1961.1 We are also in the second decade of the Cold War. The NAACP [National Association for the Advancement of Colored People] had purged its communist sympathizers and card-carrying members, which means that the anticommunist moment has limited the possibility of radical politics on the ground and eviscerated interracial unionism across the country, particularly in the industrial North. As for civil rights, traditional organizations like the NAACP and the National Urban League are tacking to the right. So the threat in the South, in particular of being tainted as a communist organization, causes great caution in terms of the kinds of organizing traditions that had been effective up to that point. Glenda Gilmore argues, in fact, that radical politics in the South ends in the 1950s.2 So, to come back to the original point, there’s this tremendous indeterminacy in this moment. We’re not sure from the black perspective – from the Southern black perspective – or from the urban Northern black perspective, what the future holds. And, in terms of relating Nothing But a Man to that context, the key thing I would emphasize is an indeterminacy and uncertainty in the film that allows for certain visions of what was happening in the South. However, with some hindsight, it seems a little bit amiss with what actually came next.

 

Cinematic Principles and Practice at Work in Nothing But a Man: A Conversation with Robert Young

ePub

Michael T. Martin and David Wall

MICHAEL T. MARTIN (MTM): Let’s begin, Mr. Young, with Nothing But a Man’s release in 1964 followed by its rerelease thirty years later in 1993. How was it received by critics and by audiences in 1964?

ROBERT YOUNG (RY): It was very well received in 1964, but the exhibition was very limited. All of the major press reviewed it. It got marvelous reviews and was on most of the “Best Ten” lists. I have a whole book of them. To me, it’s wasteful to read, but there was a lot of praise for the film because there hadn’t been a film quite like it. However, it opened at the Sutton Theater, and the distributor wouldn’t allow us to put photos of the cast in the ads. We wanted to put in pictures of Ivan [Dixon] and Abbey [Lincoln]. They wanted to use the Greek dramatis personae, the masks. And they wanted Nothing But a Man to be seen as an art film, which was to ghettoize it.

 

Nothing But a Man

ePub

Michael Roemer and Robert Young

A crew of African-Americans are laying tracks in rural Alabama. The crane operator is the only white man on the section gang.

INT. BUNK CARThe dormitory of the section gang. The men are through for the day and lounging on their bunkbeds. DUFF ANDERSON plays checkers with FRANKIE, using bottle tops as pieces. Duff makes the winning move and Frankie, disgusted, turns over the board. He saunters over to JOCKO, who is shaving in a broken mirror. Frankie watches him with a grin.

JOCKOGo to hell, Frankie.

FRANKIEMan, you sure one ugly cat!

He takes the cigarettes Jocko has rolled, sailor-style, into the sleeve of his T-shirt.

JOCKOWhy don’t you guys buy your own?

FRANKIE’Oughta give up smoking, Jocko.

He stops in front of an older man, who is writing a letter.

 

Press Kit

ePub

 

Michael Roemer

ePub

1962

Cortile Cascino. Written and directed by Michael Roemer and Robert M. Young. New York: NBC. Unbroadcasted documentary. 16 mm.

1964

Nothing But a Man. Written by Michael Roemer and Robert Young. Directed by Michael Roemer. New York: DuArt, Nothing But a Man Co. Film. 35 mm.

1982

Pilgrim Farewell. Written by Michael Roemer. Directed by Michael Roemer. Arlington, VA: PBS. Television broadcast.

1984

Vengeance Is Mine (originally broadcast as Haunted.) Written by Michael Roemer. Directed by Michael Roemer. Arlington, VA: PBS. Television broadcast.

1989

The Plot against Harry. Written by Michael Roemer. Directed by Michael Roemer. Seattle: King Screen Productions. Film. 35 mm.

1993

Children of Fate: Life and Death in a Sicilian Family. Directed by Michael Roemer, Susan Todd, Andrew Young and Robert M. Young. Croton on Hudson, NY: Archipelago Films. Documentary. 16 mm.

 

Robert M. Young

ePub

1962

Cortile Cascino. Written and directed by Michael Roemer and Robert M. Young. New York: NBC. Unbroadcast documentary. 16 mm.

1964

Nothing But a Man. Written by Michael Roemer and Robert M. Young. Cinematography by Robert M. Young. Directed by Michael Roemer. New York: DuArt, Nothing But a Man Company. Film. 35 mm.

1969

J.T. Written by Jane Wagner. Directed by Robert M. Young. New York: CBS. Television broadcast.

1972

National Geographic Special: The Last Tribes of Mindanao. Written by Dennis Azzarella and Bud Wiser. Directed by Robert M. Young. Arlington, VA: PBS. Documentary. Television broadcast.

National Geographic Special: Man of Serengeti. Written by Bud Wiser. Directed by Robert M. Young. Arlington, VA: PBS. Documentary. Television broadcast.

1974

National Geographic Special: Bushmen of the Kalahari. Written by Bud Wiser. Directed by Robert M. Young. Arlington, VA: PBS. Documentary. Television broadcast.

 

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