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National Commentary

“Nothing But a Man”

It (“Nothing But a Man”) did not presume the goal of assimilation into white society. Instead, the movie illustrated obstacles to and the possibilities for mobilizing black opposition to white supremacy.

Many institutions, from various walks of American life—e.g., sports organizations, businesses, universities, cities, states, churches, associations—have been doing things recently to discuss some racist ideas and symbols that sustain racism against African Americans.

Last weekend the Lyric Theatre in Blacksburg, in collaboration with the Montgomery County Dialogue on Race, presented the classic film from 1964, Nothing But a Man, followed on Sunday by a discussion with Q & A by my colleague Dr. Biko Agozino and myself.

They advertised the film with my words that this “is the best film ever done on African American life.” Seeing this movie again did nothing to change my mind.

Let’s look at the making of the film. The racially sensitive film was made by Michael Roemer (co-producer and director) and his classmate from the Harvard class of 1949, Robert Young (co-producer and cinematographer).

They did this film independently, outside of the studio system, which ruled things at that time. The story with a mostly black cast was about the realities of racism and black life in the segregated South.

The film is also memorable for its cast, most of whom were neophyte black actors just beginning their rise to stardom. For example, Julius W. Harris, a male nurse and onetime bouncer, had never acted before but went on to make more than 70 films.

The lead role was played by Ivan Dixon, who is best remembered today for his later role in television’s long “re”-running television series Hogan’s Heroes; however, he acted in many films. His co-star was Abbey Lincoln, whose only previous film appearance had been as herself in The Girl Can’t Help It. And she went on to a great movie and jazz-singing career.

The movie also featured a very young Yaphet Kotto in only his second film. Gloria Foster was early in her career, and this was probably the first film even for Moses Gunn and Esther Rolle, each of whom went on to make many movies.

The movie was made on a budget of $250,000. Everyone—cast and crew alike—make $100 a week during filming.

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Nothing But a Man stood at the margins of cultural production in the United States in the mid-1960s. It was not in keeping with familiar black good-time film genres, especially minstrelsy and musicals. 

It did not provide a sympathetic white character as a point of identification for white audiences.

It did not presume the goal of assimilation into white society. Instead, the movie illustrated obstacles to and the possibilities for mobilizing black opposition to white supremacy.

It is useful to consider the context of the making of the film. It was filmed in 1963, in the middle of the Civil Rights Movement. The time of Birmingham, with Bull Connors and his dogs and firehoses. That was the year of the assassination of Medgar Evers, the March on Washington, and the bombing of the church in Birmingham, killing four little girls.

They released the film in 1964, the same year that Sidney Poitier received the Academy Award for his role in Lillies of the Field, a tribute that so insulted me that I have not watched an Academy Awards show since.

The unbelievable story of Lillies of the Field was simply that this ordinary black guy, who was not a Catholic, stopped in the desert and helped a group of nuns build a chapel for no pay for a broke guy—the ultimate “black person helping whites” movie theme that made Poitier rich from his movies in the 1960s.

Both films were reactions to the civil rights movement, with one, Nothing but a Man, addressing the realities of racism, and the other, Lilies of The Field, suggesting to African Americans they can get rewarded if they play nice, don’t demonstrate, and help white folks.

Nothing But a Man shows what life was like for black Americans during racial apartheid in America, 1865 – 1965. It shows that segregation was a lot more than separate water fountains, or separate schools, or sitting in the back of the bus. It was racial oppression–always fearing for your job and your ability to feed your family, avoiding a white mob, laughing when nothing is funny, and scratching when nothing is itching.

Segregation is a code word for terror, something well dealt with in this movie.

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