Director: Michael Roemer
Writers: Michael Roemer and Robert Young
Cast: Ivan Dixon, Abbey Lincoln, Yaphet Kotto, Julius Harris.
95mins US Drama ***
First released in 1964, Nothing But A Man appears to have suffered the fate shared by so many low-budget independent films: festival success and critical acclaim, followed by a small release and a sink into relative obscurity. However, in 1993 the Library of Congress declared the film ‘culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant’ and selected the film for preservation, leading to a successful re-release in the US. Now, 20 years later, comes the film’s first-ever UK cinema release, courtesy of the BFI.
The film depicts life among the black community in a small town in 1960s Alabama, focusing upon the burgeoning romance between section hand Duff (Ivan Dixon) and local schoolteacher and preacher’s daughter Josie (Abbey Lincoln). If the romance itself follows a somewhat predictable narrative arc, the film makes up for it with its searing examination of the town’s racism, and the myriad of relationships surrounding the protagonists. In its detailed exploration of the life of Duff and Josie, and the various prejudices and troubles they face, the film questions not only the relationships between blacks and whites, but also between men and women, parents and children, friends and co-workers, and middle-class and working-class citizens. The fact that the film is able to fluidly and cohesively incorporate such a large canvas, and do so with so much wit, style and compassion, is testament to the deft hand of (white Jewish) director Michael Roemer (there’s only one sequence, towards the end of the film, which seems to ring false).
Roemer, alongside his unusually hyphenated cowriter–cinematographer Robert Young, frames the action in stark black and white images, punctuating the drama by filming the characters’ frank exchanges in powerful close ups. The film is permeated with a sense of neorealistic naturalism, its nuances and textures coalescing into a vivid portrait of 1960s Alabamian life. For all its scope, the film is tied together by Dixon’s transfixing charisma, which imbues the film with a level of charm which could easily have been absent with a lesser presence playing the protagonist. Dixon’s wry smile lends an air of charm to the proceedings, and grounds the film in a gentle, engrossing humanism. Add to this the film’s interestingly open ending and its scrupulous examination of social mores, and it’s easy to understand why the film was dubbed ‘culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant’. ALEX BARRETT