I graduated from high school in 1964, the same year this film premiered. The black and white movie is directed by Michael Roemer, in a hyper-realistic manner that became known as “Neo-realism”.
Based in the Deep South, this movie features Ivan Dixon, as railroad worker Duff Anderson, who falls for Abbey Lincoln, who plays Josie Dawson, a school teacher and minister’s daughter.
The strength of the movie is its emphasis on the lives of the characters who include Yaphet Kotto as Jocko, a fellow “gandy man” (as the manual labor railroad workers were known) and veteran thespian Gloria Foster as Lee, an embittered woman whom life has not treated kindly.
Much of the movie has a documentary feel in parallel with the romance of the lead characters. Some scenes are straight out of a time capsule that captures elements of life in the south before the Civil Rights movement.
Uncharacteristic of cinema of its era, Nothing But A Man does not shy away from presenting class and social conflicts among working people who are neither entertainers nor individual credits to the race. They are just people trying to make it, cut from the common cloth of Black life.
While the lead actors are totally believable, the minor characters also have moments of brilliance and/or authenticity. The viewer believes that this is how life was before picket lines, sit-ins, and the advent of Black Power. There is no glamour here, only daily toil and survival determination.
The soundtrack is a collaboration with the then newly rising Detroit-based Motown label. Counterintuitively, music produced in one of the major Northern cities fits right in with this Southern setting.
This is one of the major movies of the sixties. Although unflashy by today’s standards–there are no shoot-outs, grand theft schemes, car chases, nor gratuitous sex scenes–this quiet study perfectly presents the lives of small town, hard working people existing just before the tumult and upheaval characteristic of the sixties challenges in the Deep South.
Nothing But A Man is a movie that admirably earns the “quiet dignity” label.