Nothing but a Man

03/04/2012

USA / 1964 / English

Directed by Michael Roemer

With Ivan Dixon, Abbey Lincoln, Julius Harris

Still from 'Nothing but a Man'Duff Anderson is with a traveling ‘section gang’ of workers who install railway sleepers along the endless tracks of the southern United States. He is a man who has put an incomplete life on hold, favoring a lifestyle of constant motion over having to stop and reflect on things. In his hometown of Birmingham, he has a deteriorating father with whom he never connected, and a seven-year-old son in the care of a woman he has never met. Meanwhile the mother of that boy is long gone to a northern city and still using the money Duff sends her. His life follows the rails in slow motion, like a passenger who never disembarks, consisting of expectant waiting and bored male bonding – chess, cards, drinks with drab prostitutes, and rabbit-hunts.

The railroad workers retain a shadow of their camaraderie, their jocularity, but it is strangled by the harshness of their routines, and could be mistaken for stressed friction. Duff’s colleague Frankie paces through the cramped cabin, grimly cutting through his companions with an acerbic eye, enjoying in the interactions a certain familiarity, but one that has curdled to disdain without changing shape. The cynicism of the section gang acquires genuine weight and texture in the parched weariness of their voices, connoting that, rather than having lost hope entirely, they simply find no use for it.

At a church picnic while on a sort of ‘shore leave’ in a small Alabama town, he hits it off with Josie, a young teacher and daughter of Reverend Dawson, a powerful local figure. She seems the excuse he has been looking for to leave an itinerant life, and on their first date he practically dares her to marry him. She lets him know that her requirements and situation are more complex than he would have it, and it is fairly apparent why: she is sheltered, college-educated, and with a father and stepmother who would not give Duff a second glance if not compelled to because their daughter is dating him. He has a gruff interaction with the reverend, which confirms what he had already assumed about the man.

Still from 'Nothing but a Man'Dawson appears to be the most prominent black man in the town but seems to act more as an apologist for the depressingly inequitable status quo, even when that means not speaking out against the violence and murder that only ever gets whispered about. Sitting in the car on their first night together Duff and Josie get a glimpse of the town’s true colors, when a pair of white greasers try to intimidate them. The uneasy conversation about local racism that they have after the incident floats and lingers in the air indefinitely. This is an element of life in the South that persists doubly in small towns, something Duff seems to have forgotten while traveling and essentially staying shy of it.

He takes a day trip to go visit his son, and finds him existing listlessly in a room with several other children. He feels responsibility toward the boy but cannot think of what to for him besides send money his way. The city seems like a dustpan into which poor blacks find themselves swept by the brooms of economy, a place crowded with everything but hope. While in Birmingham he visits his father, out of work following an industrial accident, a caved-in man who still manages to keep himself saturated with alcohol. The woman with whom he has taken up (Duff’s mother having died a long time ago) enables him tacitly but unhappily, as though supporting his current state would somehow give way to an improvement. The three of them go to a bar and he tells Duff that women are only after money – meanwhile there is no question, in their relationship, of who is sucking whom dry.

Disregarding what her parents and what her neighbors would say about Duff as though it were all background noise, Josie takes up the challenge, seeing enough potential in his wisdom and strength to settle down with him. She goes quite readily into a standard marital situation, complete with skewed division of labor, negating her education and his worldliness (he went to Japan during war, which “got under my skin”). Together they clear out an abandoned house and make it their own, a humble and unpretentious version of self-made domesticity. While Duff has a complex view of the world, his demands on it are quite simple; he’s learned not to expect much from it. In the town where they are living there are few employment options for a black person are limited to the menial and undignified. Duff starts by aiming highest, working at a timber mill.

At first the closeness of his black coworkers seems like that of the section gang, where the bonds are tight if abrasive. However it soon becomes apparent that they are expected to give deference to their white counterparts on the job, no matter how much they are pushed around. They are happy to keep their jobs, and happier still to not incur violence. This is exactly the sort of humiliation that Duff has so far avoided by living a rail-worker’s life, with men who are perpetually on the move, and quite free to do as they please. When he comments that the black workers should have some solidarity, he is met with a suspicious silence. His goals are vague and none too lofty, for as much as he wants to find a means for making ends meet for himself and Josie, he also feels he is in a position to begin to affect change. He cannot understand why those privileged with education and high status cannot take up the torch as well.

Not an archetypal rabble-rouser, Duff merely refuses to answer to “boy”, maintaining his dignity with the determined concentration he exudes while holding a jackhammer. He’s not a hero; he simply does not value stability enough to debase himself for it. If one compromises to achieve a normal life, then it is compromised, its value and significance forever tainted. This is why he roils around and singes what he touches, frustrated at building a tower without being able to see the top clearly. He seeks it as someone does who is convinced he can have it both ways. Carefully working to fix a broken chair, he suddenly smashes it to bits with the same hammer he had been using. The sounds of the packed slum where his son lives are no doubt resonating in his head. When everything around is broken, there seems little point in fixing anything; destruction seems natural, unconsciously-done, or justified. Duff is altogether resolute in what he is prepared not to do, and this doesn’t change at all throughout the film. There is no question he will keep his integrity, but by what means he will have to do that, and to what degree he can share it with others.

Other people all put burdens on his shoulders by way of judgment and expectation. Even she adds to that burden unwittingly, by looking at him purely and insisting that he is different than the world’s refractions of him. That puts him in a difficult position; so heavy are the deformities in the surrounding social dynamic that there is no available tack besides contortion. Duff’s father stoops and shuffles, Reverend Dawson poses his thick frame outward in a deflecting stance. “It’s easier on a girl,” she tells him. “They’re not afraid of us.” Of course she does get victimized and mistreated as well, but her high social standing has shielded her so far from the worst of it. This is the difference between them that comes up again and again, if only at convenient points in an argument. By insisting that she doesn’t work, that she steer clear of the problems that he is facing, he is thereby keeping her within the ivory tower he thinks she has always inhabited. Then he turns and implicates her indifference in his suffering.

On one hand the film shows distressingly raw flashes of problems with society (poverty cycles, racial violence, alcoholism, misogyny) but addresses them in a more profound way by looking at how they deteriorate a relationship, and can strain even the bonds that people work hard to maintain, not to mention the ones towards which they feel indifferent to begin with. Resentments are displaced and jostled until they lose coherence. This is where social realism, in the truest sense, applies. The film shows the bigger picture as it manifests as bubbles beneath the crust of things, each savory moment coated with the bitter, and the brightness of hope only seen myopically, as through a pinhole. The ways in which the marriage is dented, overheated to suffocation, and indeed, the ways in which it persists regardless, speak volumes about the effects of the unjust world, seen in acutely rendered details of people together, their subtle reactions and intimate gestures. They have so many ways of getting to you, Duff observes, and not just physically – life can be taken away by a variety of means, all of which, it feels, are potentially around the corner for him.

Still from 'Nothing but a Man'The film uses the stark and unequivocal injustices (i.e.: some people are permitted to wear their dignity while others have to quietly conceal theirs) as a platform from which to face the subtler problems in life, especially in relationships. The cinematic view – that we can see carrying over into real life – that love is essentially a quest for autonomy, and that one achieves that by securing a relationship – is here put to the test. It does nothing for this story, for the time in which it is set, or its landscape of overburdened shoulders. Love is the driving factor, the reward that makes freedom worthwhile, or an illusion that vanishes when one settles for what turns out to be an easy replica. An affectionate moment between Josie and Duff, with the two of them picking laundry off of the clothesline, is cut short when a gap in the cloth reveals their next door neighbor, Barney, sitting listlessly on his front porch, as he always does, with his wife crying out at him in frustration. The younger couple’s mirth is silenced by the sight of it.

In a recent issue of The New Yorker Richard Brody writes about the richness of the sound of Nothing But a Man, which can be almost arrestingly complex. The film, whose faded tones have more in common with Lionel Rogosin’s On the Bowery (1957) than the Tony Richardson/James Anthony stodginess that its shoulder-height situations would suggest, is bosky with noises both distant and present, from the creaky emanations of the rails to the cries and 45s seeping through an apartment’s walls like dampness, to the strange and almost musical rattling of Duff’s ragged Chevrolet. In the scene inside the black church where Duff meets Josie for the first time, sound provides a propulsive backdrop, one that washes over and encompasses the entire soundtrack. The cyclical chanting of the hymn leader parallels the rapid churn of the train, the congregants punctuating it with ecstatic steam shrieks. Added to the tussled interiors (which are grimy-looking but not to the point of having their warmth and human glow smothered) and the characters’ lifelike interactions, audio is the main purveyor of the film’s realism. One can practically hear the wallpaper peeling. And, like those other key elements, it does not brandish its realism at the audience but relies on a plainspoken restraint, its implications made obvious by their unobtrusive lack of a gift-wrapping.

It would seem that Duff’s determination exceeds the breadth of his attitudes, as he is unable to heed Josie’s advice (that what specific job he works does not define him). But like a Jack Tar having to return to a landlubber’s existence, he cannot feel comfortable, economically or philosophically, with settling down. Josie is the one he should be looking to as an example, so undemanding of the people around her and with willful attention, but instead she functions as the excuse for him to sacrifice needlessly and doggedly stretch plausibility. Perspective, perhaps, is what he is mostly found wanting. She asks him over and over to take in his son, the one whose paintings adorn their walls, but he would rather start from scratch. To her, the fact that the boy may not be Duff’s at all, as he suspects, does not matter. Adopting the child would be her way of helping one more injustice, of rubbing out a bit of misery that would otherwise grow.

Still from 'Nothing but a Man'Is a person possessed of a real and quantifiable worth? If so, it is surely defined by the actions undertaken in a lifetime, rather than at a single point like a cut of meat placed on a scale. This is something that the judgmental reverend, the menacing racists, and the complacent workers fail at knowing, and what Duff is in the process of realizing: the impact that one has is always potential, forever being carried out, no matter how much the world wants to provide him or her with a finished definition of themselves, a fixed value to be appraised. We see, in the obstacles through which Duff is working (as well as in his strained relationships and quest for stability), the wretched effect that being made constantly aware of one’s own perceived worth can have on a person. Josie’s wisdom stems from being able to see through the opacity of circumstances, and to recognize that nothing external can define someone. Reproaching the world is not enough; it is equaled in importance by the act of developing vision of one’s own.

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