Michael Roemer has had to be very patient about winning anything like his due as a filmmaker. His The Plot Against Harry, made in 1969, originally disappeared without notice, only to resurface, with considerable critical acclaim, in the late 80s. Now his 1964 film about the existential difficulty of being a black man in America, Nothing But a Man, which originally had only a limited release, is back on the museum and film festival circuit. And thank God, because it is one of the strongest films I've seen this year.
Roemer, a Jew who fled Germany, found a resonance with his own experience in the cruelties of black Southern life. His empathy with his subjects is immediately clear, as his portrayal is nuanced, and devoid of well-meaning sentimentality. The empathy must have cut both ways, as I was amazed that he got such open and honest performances out of his actors.
The story has an almost folk-tale simplicity. Duff (Ivan Dixon) works on the railroad section gang, traveling with his fellow black workers up and down sections of track, making repairs. It's a nomadic job, but it pays well, and it keeps the men largely clear of whites. But it's not enough for Duff. He feels that, like any other man, he's entitled to the comforts of a family, so when he falls for a small town preacher's daughter (Abby Lincoln), he decides to marry, much to his co-workers derision.
But now that he's anchored himself in the dailiness of Southern life, he is nearly overwhelmed by the pressures of being a black man. Because he won't "act the nigger," he can't keep a job. When the pressures get too great, he takes them out on his wife.
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The film plays almost as a documentary on the difficulties of black family life. The actors are so natural, and the tone of the film is so low-key, that the effect is powerfully real. It's astounding, and painful, to see how contemporary the film seems, especially in its depiction of the near destruction of the black father. The two role models Duff has are his father-in-law, a pathetic master of compromise, and his own cruel father, who he finds, unhappily, after years of separation.
Dixon is fine as Duff, never trying too hard to win anyone's approval, and Lincoln is superb in her laconic dignity and hope. Nearly 30 years-old, this film remains a must-see.
Nothing But a Man will show at 8 p.m. Fri., Dec. 17; 7:30 p.m. Sat., Dec. 18; and 7 p.m. Sun., Dec. 19, at the Museum of Fine Arts, 1001 Bissonnet. $5; $4 MFA members. Call 639-7515 for more information.