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November 10, 2012 | 12:00 p.m. CST
Nothing But a Man isn’t the latest blockbuster or an indie, sleeper film yet to gain notoriety; it is a revolutionary, independent film made in 1964 that features an almost entirely black cast.
Duff Anderson (Ivan Dixon) is a young, black railroad worker. A simple man, Duff enjoys the freedom of life working on the railroad, especially alongside his cohort of coarse, checkers-playing friends. His life isn’t glamorous or even stable, but he makes good money and feels satisfied — that is, until he meets the preacher’s daughter, Josie Dawson (Abbey Lincoln). Beautiful and strong-willed, Josie intrigues Duff, and he begins to imagine what life would be like if he left the railroad and settled down.
Soon, Duff asks Josie to marry him, and she eagerly consents. And for a while, Duff is genuinely happy. He has a wife who loves him, a home of his own and the satisfaction of knowing that he did it all himself.
But this film isn’t a simple take on boy meets girl. Forced to quit his job on the railroad, Duff must find a lower-paying job in town. Duff acquiesces and finds a new job but cannot stand the racist white overseers. Surrounded by other black workers who fear their white bosses, Duff is quickly singled out as an elitist, black troublemaker.
Because Duff refuses to submit to the racist taunts and jeers of the town, he is fired and cannot find a job anywhere else in town. The hopeful, idealist within Duff undergoes a crisis of self. His anger consumes him and imagines himself no better than his drunkard, unloving father or any other angry black man in town.
The stoicism and potency of the film’s title characters is accentuated by the film’s straightforward dialogue and cinematography. Made with an honest simplicity, Nothing But a Man is a tale of hope, doubt and redemption. The nearly all black cast also emboldens the film and adds an authenticity often missing from other films about civil rights era America.
Dubbed one of the most sensitive films ever made about black culture by the Washington Post, Nothing But a Man serves as a harrowing but important reminder of a dim period in American culture.