Wednesday 9 October 2013

Heartland: "Nothing But A Man"

Before blaxploitation, before Killer of Sheep, there was 1964's lost indie classic Nothing But a Man, which stuck around and staked out the kind of Deep South community Sidney Poitier could only hightail through in The Defiant Ones, and took a long hard look at what was going down there: the flies, scars, cracked windshields and broken homes that collectively suggested the U.S. was still some distance short of full integration. In the middle of all this dilapidation, the ethnographically minded German-Jewish director Michael Roemer would place what looks likely to be a doomed romance, that between Duff (Ivan Dixon), a divorced or separated railroad worker, and Josie (Abbey Lincoln), the schoolmarm he takes a shine to.

This might be seen as an attempt to marry up, but the film shows us Duff has a dependability and charm of his own, and his dreams, though fragile, are not so uncommon: unlike some of his drinking buddies, he actively wants to get by, fit in, to do the right thing - from the very first minutes, he's building something. Yet he's held back, both by the job description of any black man in 1960s America, and by an immediate environment that is suspicious and humiliating at best, violently racist at worst. What follows is a quiet crisis at the heart of America, one apt to be overlooked - as, indeed, the film was after its initial release. 

Roemer shoots simply but effectively, trapping a repository of underfilmed faces within the Academy frame, a choice that fosters first intimacy - bringing even 2013 audiences closer to these lives - then a sense of stifling constraint, and as Duff's predicament becomes apparent, that tight 4:3 ratio comes to look like the type of prison to which a fellow might very well want to take an axe. In the lead roles, Roemer draws out affecting displays of naturalism from pro performers who must still have known something of these struggles, these constraints, yet who appear better placed to process them than might an untested amateur: the stoic Dixon, clenching his jaw and trying not to reel too hard from every punch life has to throw his way, is finally only outpointed when Lincoln pours forth some of the most honest and affecting tears the movies have ever asked an actress to shed.

Together, this pair are electric, and the misery of their plight will be alleviated by this chemistry, and by some of the greatest pop songs of this age ("Heatwave", "Come on Home", "Mickey's Monkey"), licensed to Roemer by the nascent Motown Records for a pittance in one of the best deals any up-and-coming filmmaker ever had the good sense to make. For its maker, the film effectively led nowhere - Roemer didn't direct again for almost two decades, then briefly resurfaced with 1989's New Independent curio The Plot Against Harry - yet what now seems utterly astonishing about Nothing But a Man is that we can plot a straight line through its atomised families to the rubble of Killer of Sheep, the bullet casings of Menace II Society and the empty vials and discarded needles that littered the five seasons of The Wire. The film, for whatever reason, went away; the issues it documented and dramatised so brilliantly never did.

Nothing But a Man is currently touring selected cinemas.

No comments:

Post a Comment