Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Underrated Movie #44: Nothing But A Man

A week of movie by white folks about black folks, and vice versa.
Title: Nothing But A Man
Year: 1964
Director: Michael Roemer (The Plot Against Harry)
Writers: Roemer and Robert Young
Stars: Ivan Dixon (“Hogan’s Heroes”), Abbey Lincoln (The Girl Can’t Help It), Yaphet Kotto (“Homicide”)

The Story: An easygoing railroad worker courts the daughter of prominent preacher who kowtows to the white power structure. She leaves her family behind to marry this proud man, but life together isn’t easy, especially after he gets a rep as an “agitator”.

How it Came to be Underrated: They had the courage to make it, but they didn’t have any way to get it to the world. This was a totally independent movie made at a time when there was no infrastructure in place to distribute them, so it was barely seen until it finally came out on dvd 40 years later.

Why It’s Great:

  1. This is such an authentic and unblinking portrait of black culture that it’s hard to believe it was made by whites, and even harder to believe that the all-black cast trusted them to tell this story. They don’t shy away from topics that were strictly verboten to discuss around white people (like nappy-headedness, for starters).
  2. I’m in love with Abbey Lincoln! She almost always looks like she’s got a sly secret. Note to actresses: look like you’ve got a sly secret. That’s good advice for anybody, actually. It makes everybody want to know what you know.
  3. Dixon’s performance is amazingly relaxed and raw. Sydney Poitier had become a big star by this point, but, with the big exception of Raisin in the Sun, he’d been stuck playing an endless succession of bloodless saints in well-meaning liberal exposés. These movies sought to prove that blacks weren’t bad people by presenting them as a monolithic force for righteousness. Dixon must have made Poitier pretty jealous by landing a complex, three-dimensional role like this one (though I’m sure he got paid peanuts)
  4. What did it cost to maintain a little dignity in the black south of 1964? We hear a lot of hagiography about the civil rights movement every January and February, but the history we get is set in a fantasy world of easy heroes and villains. Modern schoolkids wouldn’t guess that the decision to be a “race man” (or woman) was a tough one that each black person had to make on their own, and you ran the risk of alienating just as many blacks as whites.
  5. It’s hard to structure any story with a wedding in the middle. As we English majors used to joke about Shakespeare, “Every comedy ends with a wedding, and every tragedy begins with one” (as in life, we supposed). So what kind of movie has a wedding in the middle? A movie that’s willing to admit that getting married doesn’t actually fix or cause as many problems as we like to pretend. Fortunately or unfortunately, you’re still you.

If You Like This, You Should Also Check Out: Everyone should see Raisin in the Sun. John Cassavetes’s first movie Shadows is another great early independent movie that explored a black perspective.

How Available Is It?: It finally has a great dvd, beautifully restored, with a few special features.

Today’s Post Was Brought To You By: “I’m Sick and Tired of My Job”

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