This is being written a few days after the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences awarded its Best Picture Oscar to 12 Years a Slave, directed by Steve McQueen, the first black person to ever be so honored by the Academy. This recognition has been denied to Charles Burnett, Spike Lee, and many others, including cinema pioneer Oscar Micheaux. 2013 was a year in which significant films by and about blacks (42, Fruitvale Station, The Butler) were produced (but largely ignored by the Academy), a black man was inaugurated for a second term as president, and the 50th anniversary of Dr. King’s “I have a dream” speech was celebrated—in other words, a mixed bag.
Nothing but a Man (which is now on the National Film Registry of The Library of Congress) was made at the height of the Civil Rights movement and released the same year as Dr. King’s speech. The film is set in Birmingham, one of the key sites in Dr. King’s struggles. Here, three weeks after King’s speech, a church was blown up, killing four children, a tragedy chronicled in Spike Lee’s Four Little Girls. To me, Nothing but a Man reflects an authenticity, a naturalism, that I found deeply moving 50 years ago, and time has not diminished that quality. This may be presumptuous of me, as a white person, but the two men who made the film were also white. (Regular followers of this series may recall my mentioning my miniscule participation in the Movement in my posting on The Birth of a Nation. Michael Roemer was a fugitive from the Nazis in his childhood, and this undoubtedly led to a rare sensitivity toward the events depicted in the film. Nothing but a Man was enormously successful, especially in non-theatrical venues in the 1960s, and it it is heartening that its recent restoration by The Library of Congress, in collaboration with Jake Perlin’s Artists Public Domain/Cinema Conservancy (as seen in this print), may lead to it assuming its proper place. (When I worked for the distributors, Brandon Films, we had several dozen 16mm prints in constant circulation to schools, churches, etc.)
Roemer made his own Southern odyssey in planning the film, experiencing as a liberal Jew at least some of the hatred of the period, in the year prior to the Mississippi summer in which three Civil Rights volunteers were murdered. Ivan Dixon (Porgy and Bess, A Raisin in the Sun, A Patch of Blue, Car Wash), who resembles Dr. King, was a superb actor whose work was mostly relegated to television. He tirelessly asserted the cause of black actors, and won numerous awards from the NAACP and other groups. One of these was the Paul Robeson Award, reminding us of one of the century’s most underappreciated artists. Abbey Lincoln (For Love of Ivy, Mo’ Better Blues) made her film debut in Nothing but a Man, but most of her acting was also done on television. She was much better known as a jazz singer and songwriter, and as the wife of the great drummer Max Roach. Although Sidney Poitier and Harry Belafonte were already getting juicy roles in the 1950s and 1960s, Hollywood, like America itself, was resistant to opportunities for black folk. In this sense, Nothing but a Man was an independent anomaly rather than the trailblazer it might have been. Maybe, maybe, 12 Years a Slave can change some of that.