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Film / Nothing But a Man

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Nothing But a Man is a 1964 independent drama film directed by Michael Roemer.

Duff Anderson (Ivan Dixon) is a black man who works on a railroad "section gang" (a mobile group of workers that repair tracks) in the Jim Crow south. One night he splits off from his buddies, who are drinking in a pool hall, and instead goes walking downtown. He finds his way into a church service. After enjoying the Gospel Revival Number, he attends the post-service social, and meets lovely Josie Dawson (Abbey Lincoln), the preacher's daughter. Rev. Dawson (Stanley Green), who is about as upper-class as a black man can get in 1964 Alabama, disapproves of his daughter dating a common laborer. But soon enough Josie and Duff get married.

Getting married means Duff has to leave the life of an itinerant railroad worker behind, and he takes a lower-paying job at a sawmill. Duff is a proud man, unwilling to bow and scrape to the white man in the way that blacks were expected to in the Deep South. His pride and self-respect wind up getting him fired from the sawmill, and blacklisted at other sawmills. Duff soon discovers how difficult life can be in Alabama for a black man who insists on being treated with respect.


Yaphet Kotto made his film debut as Jocko, one of Duff's buddies on the railroad gang.


  • The Alcoholic: Duff's bitter old father, Will, ground down by life in the white man's world, taking solace in drink. He's drunk when Duff comes to see him and keeps drinking and getting more belligerent until he tells Duff to get lost. When Duff visits again, Will has been on a drinking bender so severe that he dies from alcohol poisoning.
  • Angry Black Man: He should be angry, given the system of legal and economic apartheid operating in 1964 Alabama. Duff finds himself jobless and unable to support his family because he refuses to accept subservient status and won't truck with white people condescending to him.
  • Category Traitor: It turns out Rev. Dawson is this. He is shown making a deal with some white power broker to prevent the black people of the town from suing to integrate the schools. He tells Duff that black people basically have to go along with white people and settle for what they can get. Josie, who sees through her father's moralizing, tells Duff towards the end of the film that her father never did anything to help the poor and jobless black people of the town.
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  • Enemy Eats Your Lunch: The first time Duff starts getting in trouble is at a lunch break at the sawmill. A white man eating lunch with the black workers starts making crass, nasty "jokes" in an obvious effort to establish dominance over them. This culminates in him grabbing bites out of Barney's lunch. Duff's refusal to laugh at the white man's "jokes" start the process that ends in him getting fired.
  • Establishing Character Moment: The other guys at the pool hall mock Doris, a sad, rough-looking prostitute who is cadging drinks and fishing for customers. Duff tells them to knock it off and buys Doris a beer, but does not buy her services, establishing him as moral and decent.
  • Head-Turning Beauty: The exceptionally good-looking Josie. Duff's friends are impressed, although Jocko warns that a preacher's daughter is unlikely to put out. The white people are naturally much more disgusting about this, making crass sexual comments about Josie that enrage Duff.
  • Hey, You!: The habit of white people of addressing grown black men as "boy" happens throughout the movie. Even the one white guy who tries to act nice when Duff arrives to tow his car does it. (Unsurprisingly, that "nice" white guy gets pissed when Duff doesn't show proper deference.)
  • I Have No Son!: "I ain't got no son," says Will, who knows that Duff doesn't approve of the way that Will has led his life.
  • Lonely Funeral: Duff and Will's lover Lee are the only ones who come to Will's funeral.
  • Mama's Baby, Papa's Maybe: Duff admits that one of the reasons he has had little contact with his four-year-old son James Lee is that he isn't completely sure that James Lee actually is his son.
  • "Not So Different" Remark: This occurs to Duff at the end, after his rage at the unfairness of life under white supremacy leads him to walk out on his wife, just as Will walked out on Duff's mother all those years ago.
    "Hell, I'm just like him."
  • "Ray of Hope" Ending: Duff reclaims his son, James Lee, and goes back home to Josie with James Lee in tow. It's not immediately obvious how their lives are going to get any better, as Duff will still have the problem of being a proud black man in a town that won't tolerate that, but there's a feeling of hope for the future. This is underlined by Duff's line that closes out the movie: "Baby, I feel so free inside."