Brilliant is not a word to be taken lightly, but in the case of 1964's Nothing But a Man, brilliant barely begins to scratch the surface. Praised by critics and film scholars for decades as a masterpiece, it is a film that still languishes in obscurity, waiting to catapulted to its rightful place as a classic of American cinema.
Ivan Dixon stars as Duff Anderson, a railroad worker in the South, waging his own private wars, while coping with the racism that surrounds him everywhere he goes. While Duff and his crew are working in a small town in Alabama, he meets Josie (Abbey Lincoln), the local schoolteacher at the segregated, colored-only school. Duff and Josie begin an unlikely relationship – despite the protest of her preacher father – and eventually the couple gets married. But married life in a rural Southern town proves hard for Duff, who refuses to bow down to local bigots, and finds it difficult to accept the fact that his wife is the family bread-winner. As he wrestles with his new position as husband and provider, Duff also must take stock of his role as father to a son he has neglected, and his relationship with his own estranged father (Julius Harris). All of these issues bare down on him with a tremendous weight that threatens to crush him.
Nothing But a Man is an amazing film, beautifully photographed by Robert Young, who co-wrote and co-produced with director Michael Roemer. Through the combination of writing, directing, photography and sublime acting, Nothing But a Man emerges as an intimate, detailed portrait of a couple enduring racism and classism, that rings with so much authenticity it seems like a documentary. Recalling the work of the Italian neo-realist that emerged during that era, Young and Roemer's film seems more like something you'd find coming out of Europe. In fact, there is so much frank and brutal honesty in Nothing But a Manthat it's almost impossible to believe the film came out of the United States – not just in 1964, but any year.
Addressing issues of race in a manner that had never been done before in American film, Nothing But a Man was a groundbreaking film that dared to depict black Americans as complex human beings. At a time when the most fully realized black characters in film were being played by Sidney Poitier, Nothing But a Man stood out as something so profoundly resonant that people didn't know what to make of it. Audiences – both white and black – had never seen black people portrayed as such multi-dimensional characters. Likewise, they had never seen issues of race or racism dealt with so honestly, without heavy-handed polemics, or feel-good solutions wrapped up in a nice neat package. Even by today's standards, Nothing But a Man stands as a revolutionary film in its depiction of the black existence in America.
Ultimately, the credit for the brilliance of Nothing But a Manlies not with filmmakers Young and Roemer (although they deserve supreme credit for making the film), but with the incredible cast. Yound and Roemer put together all the ingredients to make the film, but it is Dixon, Lincoln and the supporting cast that includes, Harris, Gloria Foster, and a young Yaphet Kotto that breaths life into the film. If it were possible to give an Oscar for Best Actor four decades later, it would go to Dixon, who gives the best performance of his career.