"Nothing But a Man," the restored 1964 drama that opens today at the Charles, is a terrific little film, but its presence also ignites an incandescent melancholy.
Remember -- was it all so long ago? -- when American movies were routinely about something? They grappled with issues, they explored emotional states, they took you into the real world, they broke your heart, healed your spirit and filled you with hope.
4 They pick your pocket. But that's another story.
"Nothing But a Man" hails from the high days of the issue movie -- say, 1945 through 1965, and including such works as "The Defiant Ones," "Dr. Strangelove," "The Lost Weekend," "The Snake Pit" and so forth.
But in many ways it's the most artful and accomplished of them all (except perhaps "Strangelove") in that while ideologically driven and propelled by torrents of liberal indignation, it made its points dramatically rather than rhetorically. The best thing about "Nothing But a Man" is that it has no speeches.
The subject was racism and its weight on rural Southern black culture. The story is deceptively simple, filmed on location around Birmingham, Ala., (presumably in some danger back in those uncivil days) and without a lot of pretense. Ivan Dixon plays a railroad section hand who lives free and easy. He and his colleagues put in a hot and sweaty 12 hours rebedding old track, then retire to the caboose for beer and poker.
They essentially live apart from society, almost like cowpokes on a cattle drive. (Look quickly and you'll note a very young and thin Yaphet Kotto in one of the smaller roles.)
But Dixon heads into a small town one night and goes to a church social. There he meets and falls in love with the minister's daughter, Abbey Lincoln, and begins a romance. Both players are exquisite without ever being theatrical. The movie has the feel of homespun cloth, eschewing show and style for more enduring truths.
Director Michael Roemer has a wonderful feel for the textures of this relationship: the minister's daughter who has a secret attraction to the rough masculinity of the day laborer and the day xTC laborer drawn to a softness nowhere else available in his life. But more drives him, and Dixon is brilliantly vivid at evoking the complexity of a seemingly simple man. Under the rough exterior, he's fundamentally decent, and as becomes apparent, he has cause to yearn for the virtues she represents: a stable family rooted in a location and the culture of an extended family.
Though her father opposes it, the two marry and begin a new life. Working at a saw mill, he is stunned by the obsequiousness of his fellow African-Americans, and mentions that they ought to stick together more. Bad career move, Ivan. Instantly, he gets a ++ reputation as a "troublemaker" and becomes unemployable.
That shock, and its temptation to spin off into violent bitterness, instead propels him on a journey to his own roots and an attempt to learn who he is and why things are the way they are.
For a film made in 1964, "Nothing But a Man" is extraordinarily acute in its insights.
Dixon's journey confronts the breakdown in the African-American family and the uncertain legacy in the transfer of manhood and its responsibilities from father to son; it observes the predations of self-inflicted pathologies like alcohol and self-hatred on the family; it chronicles the fractionalization of the black community itself, and the desperate temptations to go along to get along and thereby perpetuate the system, though at tremendous internal cost.
Immaculately made in crisp and evocative black and white (by cinematographer Robert Young, who later became a noted director), "Nothing But a Man" is a superb and unflinching film that never becomes too preachy or righteous.
Its final embrace of optimism and hope for the future is its strongest virtue.
"Nothing But A Man"
Starring Ivan Dixon and Abbey Lincoln
Directed by Michael Roemer
Released by Original Cinema