The Politics and Poetics of Black Film
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Written and directed by two white men and performed by an all-black cast, Nothing But a Man (Michael Roemer, 1964) tells the story of a drifter turned family man who struggles with the pressures of small-town life and the limitations placed on him and his community in the Deep South, an area long fraught with racism. Though unmistakably about race and civil rights, the film makes no direct reference to the civil rights movement. Despite this intentional absence, contemporary audiences were acutely aware of the social context for the film's indictment of white prejudice in America. To help frame and situate the film in the context of black film studies, the book gathers primary and secondary resources, including the original screenplay, essays on the film, statements by the filmmakers, and interviews with Robert M. Young, the film's producer and cinematographer, and Khalil Gibran Muhammad, the Director of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture.

Introduction: Nothing But a Man and the Question of Black Film / David C. Wall and Michael T. Martin
Filmmaker Statements
Michael Roemer
Robert M. Young
Demanding Dignity: Nothing But a Man / Bruce Dick and Mark Vogel
Nothing But a Man / Thomas Cripps
The Derailed Romance in Nothing But a Man / Karen Bowdre
Can't Stay, Can' Go: What is History to a Cinematic Imagination / Terri Francis
Civil Rights, Labor, and Sexual Politics on Screen in Nothing But a Man / Judith Smith
Historicity and Possibility in Nothing But a Man: A Conversation with Khalil Muhammad / David C. Wall and Michael T. Martin
Cinematic Principles and Practice at Work in Nothing But a Man: A Conversation with Robert Young / Michael T. Martin and David C. Wall
Screenplay Nothing But a Man
Press Kit from Cinema V Distributing, Inc. (1965)
Michael Roemer
Robert M. Young
Select Bibliography



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Date de parution 20 octobre 2015
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EAN13 9780253018502
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The Politics and Poetics of Black Film
Nothing But a Man
EDITED BY David C. Wall Michael T. Martin
This book is a publication of
Office of Scholarly Publishing
Herman B Wells Library 350
1320 East 10th Street
Bloomington, Indiana 47405 USA
2015 by Michael T. Martin and David C. Wall
All rights reserved
No part of this book may be reproduced or utilized in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying and recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from the publisher. The Association of American University Presses Resolution on Permissions constitutes the only exception to this prohibition.
The paper used in this publication meets the minimum requirements of the American National Standard for Information Sciences - Permanence of Paper for Printed Library Materials, ANSI Z 39.48-1992.
Manufactured in the United States of America
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
The politics and poetics of black film : Nothing but a man / edited by David C. Wall and Michael T. Martin.
pages cm. - (Studies in the cinema of the black diaspora)
Includes bibliographical references and index.
Includes filmography.
ISBN 978-0-253-01844-1 (pbk. : alk. paper) - ISBN 978-0-253-01850-2 (ebook) - ISBN 978-0-253-01837-3 (cloth : alk. paper) 1. Nothing but a man (Motion picture) 2. Race relations in motion pictures. 3. African Americans in motion pictures. I. Wall, David C., editor. II. Martin, Michael T., editor.
PN 1997. N 5678 P 85 2015
791.43 72 - dc23
1 2 3 4 5 20 19 18 17 16 15
Introduction: Nothing But a Man and the Question of Black Film David C. Wall and Michael T. Martin
Michael Roemer
Robert Young
Demanding Dignity: Nothing But a Man Bruce Dick and Mark Vogel
Nothing But a Man Thomas Cripps
The Derailed Romance in Nothing But a Man Karen Bowdre
Can t Stay, Can t Go: What Is History to a Cinematic Imagination? Terri Francis
Civil Rights, Labor, and Sexual Politics on Screen in Nothing But a Man Judith E. Smith
Historicity and Possibility in Nothing But a Man: A Conversation with Khalil Muhammad Michael T. Martin and David C. Wall
Cinematic Principles and Practice at Work in Nothing But a Man: A Conversation with Robert Young Michael T. Martin and David C. Wall
Nothing But a Man
from Cinema V Distributing (1965)
Michael Roemer
Robert M. Young
Select Bibliography
AS IS ALWAYS THE CASE WITH A PROJECT SUCH AS THIS, THERE are many thanks to be made to those without whom it would not have come to fruition. We must acknowledge the Black Film Center/Archive ( BFC / A ) at Indiana University, Bloomington, which hosted the Cinematic Representations of Racial Conflict in Real Time symposium in the spring of 2010 from which this book, as well as the series Studies in the Cinema of the Black Diaspora of which it is the first volume, derives. Equal thanks must go to Indiana University for their awarding of a New Frontiers grant to the BFC / A without which the symposium itself would not have been possible. As we have gone through the process of putting this volume together, many people have committed their time and energy in countless ways in an effort to ensure the quality and relevance of the contributions herein. This includes those anonymous external reviewers whose supportive comments encouraged us to continue with the project. At Indiana University Press, Robert Sloan and David Miller have given us endless support and advice as they have shepherded the manuscript through to publication. Their patience with the progress of the book (as well as us!) has been exemplary. This is equally true of copy editor Karen Hallman who has unfailingly offered both sage advice and sound direction whenever called upon. Dr. Alexa Sand, Dr. Christopher Scheer, Dr. Rachel Middleman, and Dr. Laura Gelfand offered much constructive and productive criticism of our introduction in its early stages and their sharp eyes and wise counsel are much appreciated. Thanks must go also to Adele Stephenson whose compelling artwork is to be found on the cover. Lastly, our greatest thanks must go to the filmmakers Michael Roemer and Robert Young for their unceasing efforts on behalf of the project. Their personal contributions give unique insight into one of the most significant independent films of the period thus adding immeasurably to the contributions of the other commentators and contributors. It would be a much lesser volume indeed without their work and involvement. They have also been unfailingly kind and supportive in their conversations and support throughout the process and endlessly willing to allow us to use images and materials it would have been otherwise difficult, if not impossible, to acquire. We hope that this book in however small a way will serve as a lasting testament to their work.
The Politics and Poetics of Black Film
Introduction: Nothing But a Man and the Question of Black Film
David C. Wall and Michael T. Martin
THE QUESTION OF WHAT PRECISELY CONSTITUTES BLACK FILM is a vexing one. Even the way the question is worded can affect how we might frame our considerations and come to our conclusions. What is black film? is, after all, a very different question to what is a black film? In considering this critically important issue, it might seem odd to turn to the work of two white filmmakers but, in many ways, a black film made by whites serves as a peculiarly productive point of departure. In view of that, this volume concentrates on a classic of American independent cinema, Michael Roemer and Robert Young s Nothing But a Man (1964). It is an extraordinary film that is, at one and the same time, a romantic melodrama, a neorealist expression of the class struggle, a radical examination of racial subjectivity, a celebration of the nuclear family, and a dissertation on black masculinity. It reveals a complicated concatenation of racial and cultural discourses that weave through the film and swirl around its production, dissemination, and consumption.
That a category such as black film should exist is itself testament to the volatility of those systems of knowledge that structure American discourses of race. From its earliest inception, American film was implicitly and explicitly raced as white. The repertoire of black caricatures, stereotypes, and distortions that cavorted across the landscape of nineteenth-century American culture made an almost seamless transition from stage and page to celluloid. One of the earliest narrative black representations on screen was a twelve-minute version of Uncle Tom s Cabin (1903) made by Edwin S. Porter, and it should come as no surprise that the black characters were all played by white actors in blackface. Comic shorts were especially popular and catalogs of available films were replete with titles such as Watermelon Contest, A Nigger in the Wood-pile, Prize Fight in Coon Town , and The Gator and the Pickaninny . 1 Thus, reflecting and reinforcing the extant vectors of racial representation, early film played a profoundly important role in articulating a normative whiteness to a mass audience.
Though it was clearly already a ubiquitous feature of early silent film, the ineluctable linkage between the language of American race and the language of American cinema was only fully forged in D. W. Griffith s epic Birth of a Nation (1915) where, as James Snead has it, film form and racism coalesce into myth. 2 In short, as it established itself as a formalized system of economic and artistic production, Hollywood became institutionalized as white. Any black presence was relatively minor and mostly confined to acting in a service capacity within the industry or by performing those roles - servant, mammy, laborer, comic relief, etc. - that cemented a cinematic grammar of blackness designed to validate the extracinematic hierarchy of race for white audiences.
One of the consequences of white Hollywood s refusal to allow black Americans to play any significant part in the nascent film industry was the development of a parallel industry of race movies, produced specifically for black cinema-goers and featuring productions with largely all-black casts and frequently black-themed stories. Though Birth of a Nation became the cinematic Ur -text to which black film had to respond, African American filmmakers had been working since the earliest days of cinema, producing movies that covered the full spectrum of black social experience. Film companies came and went, sometimes making only a single feature before disappearing, while others, such as the Lincoln Motion Picture Company and the Foster Photoplay Company proved more durable. Oscar Micheaux, one of the most well-known and prolific black filmmakers of the early period, managed to sustain a career - albeit frequently patchy at best - from the silent days through the emergence of sound and into the 1940s.
Though the aesthetic quality of race movies was both derided because of, and explained away by, a lack of time, resources, and money, it is worth bearing in mind Clyde Taylor s argument in respect of contemporary black film that the triumphs of independent cinema must be appreciated within their imperfections, even because of them, as they stand opposed to the perfections of Hollywood. 3 Not least of these perfections imagined by Hollywood was that of an untrammeled and inviolable whiteness. Responding to the paucity and nature of the roles offered to black actors in Hollywood, race movies allowed African American performers to play parts routinely denied them in mainstream cinema. And it needs to be stated that race films were also able to tackle issues that Hollywood would have deemed unacceptable. Micheaux s Within Our Gates (1920), for instance, was a deliberate response to Birth of a Nation and, through its mix of melodrama and romance, served as a powerful critique of racial prejudice. 4 Frank Perigini s The Scar of Shame (1927) is a similarly compelling examination of the politics of skin color within the African American community. Accepting Marc Ferro s definition of these wholly independent productions as the first historical counterfilm in American cinema 5 would seem to offer us a straightforward point of departure for a definition of black film. Yet the history of these movies is complicated by the fact that so many of them were either financed by white companies (sometimes under the guise of black ownership) or produced and directed by whites who simply saw the African American market as a way of making money. There were also those white filmmakers, such as David Starkman and Richard E. Norman, whose commitment to race films was charged (at least in part) with a broader political commitment to antiracism.
This raises some complicated issues all of which are key to our understanding of Nothing But a Man . First, it underscores the profound importance of the material conditions of a film s production and the direct affect they have on both distribution and definition. Second, those material conditions are structured by a set of power relations outside the text that are themselves deeply embedded in broader ideological discourses. Third, it demands that we carefully consider the cultural labor undertaken by the text as it plays its part in the social and cinematic constitution of the spectator/subject. After all, the filmic text is always situated culturally. This is not only an issue of context but of understanding the ways in which those registers of meaning demarcate lines of authority and suasion that structure the visual and discursive economies of race. No image is innocent (notwithstanding the implicit claims of whiteness to the contrary) and cinematic images of blackness carry a powerful charge. Fourth, while the race of those involved in a film s production does not necessarily determine how that text might be defined, the power relations that exist outside the text have to be acknowledged and so, in that sense, we cannot ignore the race of the filmmakers. Filmmakers are historically situated and culturally constructed just as their films are. This not only emphasizes the significance of race but also points to its febrile unreliability as an all-encompassing category of explanation. Fifth, American film exists within a system of knowledge that is shaped by ideologies of race and cannot be understood outside of its visual grammar. Regardless of the racial subjectivity of the filmmaker, the text might reinforce the dominant structures of race, or engage, contest, and problematize those cinematic and extracinematic codes. It may sometimes do both things simultaneously.
In Redefining Black Film , Mark Reid insists on a clear distinction between what he calls black commercial film and black independent film. He argues that even with a significant black involvement in their production, commercial movies simply do not allow for a black perspective that acknowledges differences of race, class, gender, and sexuality. 6 He defines black independent film, by contrast, as that which focuses on the black community and is written, directed, produced and distributed by individuals who have some ancestral link to black Africa. 7 In indicating that a black commercial presence does not sui generis confer a black perspective, Reid seems to highlight the nonutility of any kind of essentialist identity politics. In view of this, then, his definition of independent film seems oddly reductive. Certainly in the context of American cinema, it is hard to conceive of any film - commercial or independent - that could possibly be in its entirety written, directed, produced and distributed by individuals who have some ancestral link to black Africa. This proscriptive definition would exclude almost every classic of black American film including Charles Burnett s Killer of Sheep (1977), John Singleton s Boyz n the Hood (1991), and, indeed, Spike Lee s entire oeuvre. It would also suggest that a commercial film such as Lee s Malcolm X , for example, contained no possibility of a black perspective that acknowledges differences of race, class, gender, and sexuality.
A definition of black film that unequivocally demands black directors and/or producers would render films such as John Sayles s Brother from Another Planet (1984) and Perry Henzell s The Harder They Come (1972) essentially meaningless. Its coherence as a conceptual framework would further collapse in the face of having to then accept an Ernest Dickerson-directed episode of Law and Order , for instance, as an example of black film to sit alongside Haile Gerima s Bush Mama (1979) or Julie Dash s Daughters of the Dust (1991). In Black Film as Genre , Thomas Cripps suggests that identity analysis is in effect a zero sum game that would ultimately leave us to argue forever over who has the right to dance on the head of a pin. 8 And yet he has a similarly reductive definition of black film: those motion pictures made for theater distribution that have a black producer, director, and writer, or black performers, though he does concede that on occasion the category must embrace film produced by white filmmakers whose work attracted the attention, if not always the unconditional praise, of black moviegoers and critics. 9 Mark Reid elsewhere offers a slightly more nuanced definition in distinguishing between African American film . . . directed, written, or co-written by members of this community and black-oriented film made up of black-focused films whose directors and screen writers are nonblack. 10 This notion of black-oriented film appears to allow us space to imagine a text that thoughtfully attempts to present itself from and through a black perspective regardless of the racial subjectivity of the filmmaker. But reserved as it is only for nonblack filmmakers, this categorization remains indebted to racial subjectivity as the determinant factor.
In Black Film as Signifying Practice , Gladstone Yearwood points out the inadequacy of indexical theories as an acceptable means of defining black film precisely because it would dismiss a film by a white director such as Michael Roemer s Nothing But a Man . 11 He continues, what is most important about the film is the film itself. The operators (producer, director and writer) are properly part of the pre-text, in that the text is a product of their work and they exist prior to the text. While their contribution to the making of the text is undeniable they - in and of themselves - cannot fully define the film they produce. Tommy Lott goes further in asserting that, biological criteria are neither necessary nor sufficient for the application of the concept of black cinema because of the ambivalence engendered by having to place biological over cultural criteria in deciding questions of black identity. 12 Rather, Lott is concerned with what he calls the complexity of meanings attached to the politics of race and their iterations in film. Black film is not an inviolate form of nature and in considering the multiple ways in which it might be constructed, we must allow for those constantly moving and dynamic iterations to be both critically confirmed and contested. Situated within what Elia Shohat and Robert Stam refer to as an orchestration of ideological discourses 13 film forms part of an intellectual economy of race that inevitably shapes - and is shaped by - its on-screen significations. It is, then, precisely because of the film s cultural situatedness that Young and Roemer s whiteness has to be acknowledged in any discussion or consideration of Nothing But a Man , but it is that same situatedness that also allows the film to constitute a significant contribution to black American cinema notwithstanding the racial identity of the filmmakers themselves.
Shot in black and white with no extradiegetic soundtrack and dealing with the harsh realities of black working-class life in the Deep South, Nothing But a Man was, as Robert Young acknowledges in his narrative of the film s production, heavily influenced by the work of Vittorio de Sica and Roberto Rosselini. The film s neorealist sensibility speaks to its origins in an award-winning documentary called Sit-In that Young made for NBC in 1960. That Nothing should have its origins in documentary is not insignificant, for this too inescapably implicates its constructions of race in wider representational strategies that consistently link blackness with poverty and privation. In the context of American culture, even the most apparently innocent black image is freighted with a history of representation that has ubiquitously offered a pathologized black subject as the object of scopophilic pleasure for the white spectator. In this sense, then, even the most well-meaning progressive and liberal representation can never fully escape the seductive entreaties offered the white gaze by the spectacle of the damaged black body. Similarly, even the most concerted and sincere corrective to stereotypes may fail to acknowledge a broader system of discourses that privileges whiteness as a structural element of its own existence.
However, while it is important to acknowledge these issues it is also critically important to avoid the kind of relativism that sees no categorical distinctions between sets of representations or, indeed, to fall backward into the quagmire of identity politics. The fact that all visual representation is a process of construction such that the broader consequences of race must always be kept in mind, should actually strengthen the impetus to make sense of the qualitative distinctions between responsible efforts to critically engage with the dominant structuring discourses of race and those efforts that seek to revalidate the privileges of whiteness. Clearly there is a distinction to be made, for instance, between the serious attempt to understand history in a documentary series such as Eyes on the Prize (1987) and the egregious misrepresentations of history in a film such as Alan Parker s Mississippi Burning (1988) (though neither would match Reid s definition of black film.) We would argue that Nothing But a Man is very much located with the former. It is an intervention in the politics of race as they existed in the early 1960s and a deliberate attempt to speak to the most urgent and significant issue of its moment. There is no mistaking the liberal politics of the filmmakers or indeed the film itself. That the film s representation of race is problematized by its own progressive whiteness so to speak is evidence of the multivalence of the text. Subsuming a clearly articulated political critique within a domestic narrative allows the film to articulate a politics of race that is implicit in character and action without ever becoming hectoring or didactic. Nothing But a Man attempts to resolve its tensions by emphasizing the expressive and affective fundamentals of narrative and character thus representing the human experience of characters who are black rather than laying a claim to representing the black experience.
As a number of the pieces in this collection point out, Nothing But a Man is clearly about race and civil rights and yet makes no allusion or reference to the civil rights movement. The volatile context of racial crisis is made profoundly significant by a textual absence that can never be complete. For, though the film does not explicitly situate the characters historically, contemporary audiences would have been acutely aware of the immediate political context for the film s excoriating indictment of white prejudice. In this way we see that meaning is brought to the cinematic text as well as riven from it and the complex relationship between the racial subject and the material conditions of the film s production is echoed in the processes of its consumption. Yearwood s notion of the pre-text points us toward the ways in which the text exists independently of its producers. As a consequence of this independence, the meaning of the text is not reliant upon, or determined by, its producers but by a negotiated settlement of meaning established through the film s signifying codes as they are dialogically encountered by the spectator/viewer. As Stephen Heath puts it, meaning is not just constructed in the particular film, meanings circulate between social formation, spectator and film; a film is a series of acts of meaning, the spectator is there in a multiplicity of times. 14 As film is not only the producer of meaning but also the site and recipient of meanings projected back onto it, 15 the spectator s role in the production of meaning becomes crucial. Not only is the viewer inevitably interpolated through the social vectors of race, but that same viewer may also have no knowledge of the conditions of the film s production or the racial identity of the film s producers. That knowledge - as it dialogically encounters the viewer - may then change the entire meaning of the film. What might appear to be a black film in the most obvious and straightforward way might possibly, for that hypothetical spectator, become something very different indeed.
We do not make films innocently and neither do we watch them in that way. We are inescapably drawn into an ongoing process of discursive engagement rather than simply the critical assessment of an object entirely external to ourselves. Our relationship to, and membership in, the discourse communities that surround the production, dissemination, and consumption of film mean that we play a crucial role in the constant generation of meaning. We must both assert and accept that a key register of meaning, especially in looking at a text such as Nothing But a Man , is that of race. We need to understand race within the film as spectacular performance but also that we carry with us the weight of history from outside the frame. The complicated and fluid relationship between the audience and the cinematic text plays its part in individuating us as social, cultural, and ideological beings for, as Teresa de Lauretis says, We intersect the text as the text intersects us. 16
While acknowledging the persuasive importance of de Lauretis s notion of intersectionality, it needs to be underlined that film itself is always making certain categorical claims on us. The classificatory processes that shape the way film is situated in the world mean that, notwithstanding the fluidity of the discrete relationship between viewer and text, we are always bringing ourselves to an object that is making a prior assertion as to its own identity. Indeed, the fundamental structures of Hollywood genre rely on this almost entirely. Defining a film by genre or type is the first critical stage in its marketing and will attach to the movie a whole set of significations designed to shape the spectator s understanding before a single frame of the film itself has been experienced. Movies do not occupy definitional categories by nature or acts of God but as a consequence of the myriad of social and cultural discourses surrounding them. Designations are choices made and the way a film is marketed will frequently play a profoundly significant role in determining not only where it might be seen and by whom it might be seen but - and perhaps most importantly - how it might be seen.
It is neither insignificant nor wholly surprising that Nothing But a Man was marketed for the most part as an independent art film. 17 Having had its American premiere 18 at the New York Film Festival in the fall of 1964, it began a run at New York s Sutton Theater. Like many independent films of the era, its relatively short theatrical release has been followed by a peripatetic life of three or four decades of film festivals and university film studies courses. But in being designated as an art film, Nothing But a Man was encoded with a set of significations designed to legitimize its difficult subject matter and ensure that its audience was largely literate, college-educated, middle-class, liberal, and white. Indeed, exactly the kind of audience for whom this film would perform a particular type of cultural labor. The concept of the independent art film is shaped by unorthodox themes, unorthodox structure, a pushing of the boundaries of form, and the presence of political and social issues beyond the scope of mainstream Hollywood film. In this respect, it is perhaps odd to think of Nothing But a Man as an art film. In many ways it is a very traditional realist romantic drama focusing on the crises within a heterosexual relationship that are resolved through the restitution of the family unit. What Gary Morris refers to as the sanctity of the linear narrative 19 is left very much intact. Even odder, however, is to consider that, as a consequence of the film industry s concerns over whether films about the race issue were best sold as prestige problem pictures or as exploitation items, 20 Nothing But a Man was often marketed as an exploitation or grindhouse movie. Christopher Seiving suggests that this is in no small part due to the fact that both the art-house and exploitation markets were better defined and certainly better understood by distributors than was the African American audience. 21 All this notwithstanding, and though utterly traditional in its formal properties, the film is deeply unorthodox in its representation of black characters, as was much independent film of the period from Cassavetes s Shadows (1958) and Ed Blands s The Cry of Jazz (1959) to Lionel Rogosin s Come Back Africa (1958) and Shirley Clarke s Cool World (1964). This is not to say that the film s politics of racial representation are neither complicated nor frequently contradictory, but that it purposely and purposefully avoids descending into the caricature and stereotyping so generally prevalent in mainstream films of the period.
Films change dramatically over the years with their definition, reception, status, and meaning contingently dependent on multiple contexts that are themselves constantly shifting. Hollywood films now considered classics such as Bringing Up Baby (1938), Psycho (1960), and even Citizen Kane (1941) were not greeted with the untrammeled universal approbation with which they have been subsequently regarded. Canon formation is a febrile and dynamic process and films once dismissed or entirely forgotten are frequently rediscovered as classics for many and various reasons. Indeed, Oscar Micheaux s Within Our Gates , thought to be lost until a damaged and incomplete print was discovered in Spain in the 1980s, 22 is an instructive example to consider. This volume is part of an increasing body of work in relation to Nothing But a Man that is playing its part in marking the film as a serious and worthwhile object of study within the history and tradition of black cinema. It is evidence of a coalescing of discourses that embeds film within certain historical trajectories that then serve to shape and maintain a canon. There is a crucially important, and often symbiotic, relationship between the university and outside organizations and institutions, especially as regards the arts, that frequently merge to act as the arbiters of what should or should not be included in that canon. Scholarship, along with companies such as Criterion and Milestone, plays an important role in making films serious and can confer a gravitas perhaps hitherto ungranted. And, as mentioned, the editors selection of Nothing But a Man is in itself a deliberate gesture toward, and considered assertion of, the historical and cultural significance of the film. We cannot escape the ideological implications of our own work although, as thoughtful critics, we should be aware enough to acknowledge their presence and to understand our own positioning of the film accordingly. The film s showing as part of the 2012 golden jubilee celebratory repertoire of the New York Film Festival is yet another way in which the film is being integrated in the various ordering discourses of meaning within the history and tradition of American film. There is nothing inherently wrong with this process but its contingency needs to be constantly invoked (as does the problematizing of terms such as classic and canon ) to ensure that we do not naturalize those definitions and demarcations arrived at as a consequence of our own choices and interests.
For such a significant film, however, there seems to have been a comparatively small amount of significant critical or scholarly work. It is crucially important to consider the relationship between any text and its historical context and all our contributors do this in various ways. This is especially true for a film such as Nothing But a Man that speaks to such a significant historical moment at, what historian Khalil Muhammad refers to as, a point of indeterminacy in relation to the future of black citizenship in the country. As Bob Young explains in both his own narrative of the film s production and the lengthy interview with Michael Martin and David Wall, though the catalyst for Nothing But a Man was the documentary Sit-In , the feature film was not an historical narrative but a story of personal lives. As has been acknowledged, though the film was released in 1964 there is no direct mention of the tumultuous events that were shaping American society at the time. This is an interesting vision through which to consider the politics of history in a film that seemingly does not even acknowledge its own profoundly important historical context. But history is cinematically articulated in multiple ways. For Bob Young and Michael Roemer it was important not that they show a group of people marching on Selma but that they creatively express the ways in which the deeply pernicious consequences of racism are articulated privately, unknowingly, and often unavoidably in the most intimate and private moments. As Bob Young puts it, From a distance, what is remembered of the nineteen sixties are the killings, the bombings, the assassinations, Bull Connor, Martin Luther King, Jr. etc. Mike and I were interested in going in the opposite direction. To get to the personal, the intimate, and to see that even here the dominant society encroaches on the private life. Before the phrase became a glib clich by the middle of the following decade, Nothing But a Man manages to articulate perfectly that the personal is always the political.
So many of the possibilities, probabilities, and consequences suggested by Nothing But a Man - whether they came to pass or not - can now more easily be understood and framed by the benefit of historical hindsight. This is true not only for us as viewers, but perhaps even more so for the filmmakers themselves. Michael Roemer s compelling narrative expresses his sense of the film as a personal story focused on the private space between a few people. However, in looking back with fifty years of perspective, Roemer ponders complex questions concerning the nature of selfhood, identity, and representation within the context of a racialized America. Unforgiving in what he sees as the failures of the film, his powerfully honest account centralizes the often problematic involvement of white writers and directors in the creation of black cinema. His concern focuses on the ways in which the politics of race impact the ability of the even the most progressive white efforts to represent a black experience. His critical self-assessment is conducted partly through a fascinating dialogic engagement with Khalil Muhammad s contribution to this volume. And yet his admission that I have never been able to finish a piece of work without becoming aware of its limitations does not detract from the aesthetic and political validity that the film does possess. As he puts it: If Nothing But a Man , whatever its problems and shortcomings, plays a small part in supporting our necessary but forever challenged existence as individuals it would seem to be on the side of the angels.
Bob Young is equally refreshingly candid in the way he talks about the process of getting the film made, the difficulties of production, the racism encountered, the constant threat of violence, and the problems of white filmmakers trying to tell a black story. That experience speaks loudly to key questions such as: What does radical politics look like on the cinema screen? How do representations of race structure our historical understanding of liberation struggles? To what extent is it fair to expect the politics of film to translate into a politics of everyday life? Nothing But a Man is, in many ways, a small and quiet film that has much more obvious corollaries with European cinema than with Hollywood. Bob Young s acknowledgment of Italian neorealism as a key influence says as much. But its literal and metaphorical focus on the lives, bodies, faces, and material conditions of Duff and Josie s relationship speaks to the great themes of human existence: life, liberty, love, dignity, and self-determination.
For Bruce Dick and Mark Vogel it is the tropes of rootedness and stability that assume greatest significance in their analysis of the emotional lives of Duff and Josie. Their discussion is framed by two iconic events of the civil rights movement in George Wallace s Segregation Now and Martin Luther King s I Have a Dream speeches. These moments of powerful public oratory are frequently evoked as tidy shorthand iterations of the entire civil rights struggle with their contextual and historical complexities just as frequently elided. For Dick and Vogel, however, they serve as the constitutive extremes for the experience of ordinary individuals struggling to maintain dignity amid oppression. They read the film ultimately as a testament to the ways in which individuals enact and articulate the broader struggle through their own dignity and refusal to be defeated. As Bob Young puts it, It s a common observation that history tends to deal with important characters and significant events. In our film, Josie and Duff are seen as ordinary people. . . . Our focus as storytellers was on the personal situations Duff and Josie were facing in their lives, and in the different ways that, through those situations, the internalized forces of the larger society might be expressed.
Thomas Cripps chooses to fold these themes into his framing of the film as a pastoral narrative. This approach is intriguing in that it inevitably alludes to those significant issues of urban blight, white hazing, and segregated Alabama without ever consciously acknowledging the pressing political contexts of the civil rights movement. Like the film itself, Cripps s essay seems determined to avoid situating the characters within any kind of sociological context, the bane of much black expressive culture especially in terms of critical response from white critics. Cripps defines Nothing But a Man as a black film not only because the themes are black but because our point of view is from within black circles in segregated Alabama. He is at the same time abstracting the experience of black Americans into both a deeply embedded western European narrative form as well as a more recent history of black American cinema that had seen the emergence of the urban outlaw hero in films such as Shaft (1971), Sweet Sweetback s Baadassss Song (1971), and The Spook Who Sat by the Door (1973). But, Cripps argues, Duff Cooper stands apart from John Shaft, Sweet Sweetback, and Dan Freeman in a commitment to the value of being governed by a formula that equates survival and success with sameness, roots and permanence, rather than social mobility. While this may be an important element of the pastoral hero per se, we might see something more troubling in an implicit idyllic undercurrent to the pastoral discourse that equates the rural with sameness . . . and permanence. Is it enough that if all else fails, [Duff] can still pick other people s cotton at least to be close to the soil? The history of the Great Migration would suggest otherwise.
In Karen Bowdre s close textual reading of the film, the personal as political is expressed through the romantic relationship between Duff and Josie around which the rest of the narrative circulates. In her analysis of their romance, she elaborates not only on the ways in which their relationship is troubled and trammeled by broader social forces, but also the uniqueness of the film s exceptional and complicated portrayal of an African American romantic relationship. In this way, her reading of the ways in which Nothing But a Man offers a decisive break from Hollywood movies about African American life situates the text in film history as well as social history while confirming the ineluctable linkages between the two. While highlighting the progressive imperatives of the film s representations of race and class, however, Bowdre also identifies what she sees as the film s problematic articulation of gender politics. In keeping with her focus on the personal and affective, she reads Josie as emblematic of a gendered discourse in which the female characters are individuated only through their sexual and emotional relationships with men, rather than through any explicitly articulated set of politics or political discourse. Thus, for women, the personal is always and inevitably emphasized over the political.
In similarly considering the personal as a constitutive feature of Nothing But a Man s narrative, Terri Francis emphasizes the relationship between ideology and aesthetics and the ways in which the visual and cinematic structure of the film is designed to collapse any dichotomy between the personal and the historical. In seeing the personal/political via forms of visual and cinematic representation in which the face is the landscape and the world writ small, Francis alludes to a broader point concerning the relationship between cinema and history: that a film can speak to and of its history, but in its very intimacy it can speak simultaneously to struggles extant at any point in history. It goes beyond the particularities of its own historical moment and reaches out and beyond to other moments and other histories. As she explains, this is made possible, in part, by virtue of the fact that there is a certain anonymity or lack of definition to the geographical landscape in the film just as there is to the political landscape. As she puts it, its sketch of time contains all the emotion and possibility that belongs to us at any time in history.
The sense of timelessness that Terri Francis sees as built into the film s minimalist realism reflects and refracts that sense of indeterminacy that Khalil Muhammad sees pervading the film. Muhammad s historical contextualization of the film is an invaluable complement to those discussions that focus on politics and aesthetics. He manages to speak not only to the film s immediate national context but touches on the development of revolutionary ideas emerging from decolonization struggles across the world as they shaped American civil rights thinking and strategies. In positing indeterminacy as a constitutive feature of Nothing But a Man , Muhammad underlines the critical importance of the film s historical moment in his argument that the film offers multiple possibilities - not all of which are positive, it must be said - for the evolution of the civil rights struggle. Among much else, Muhammad s consideration of what is outside the frame manages to remind us of the crucial importance of the black church to the struggle. Expressing a concern that the film elides the presence and importance of the black church, Muhammad actually draws us back to the primary concern of the filmmakers, which was to examine the relationship between the political and the personal.
For Judith Smith, the political struggle that formed the extracinematic context for Nothing But a Man is critically central to our understanding of the film. In examining the film s uncertain path to production and exhibition, she problematizes those issues related to not only race, but also gender and class. Her extremely detailed assessment of the film s origins and development pays particular attention to the personal history of Young and Roemer s working relationship and the layers of complexity that their whiteness and Jewishness brought to the film. In highlighting the racial tensions that existed on set, Smith demonstrates that a history of the film, as much as the film itself, allows us a rare opportunity to listen in on public conversations about race and labor, political economy and gender. Smith emphasizes the ways in which the film posits male-female relationships as the critical point of resistance to white racism and oppression. In her assertion that black female agency is shown as central to the project of sustaining the resisting black family, she has a somewhat different take on Muhammad s criticisms that one of the film s deepest flaws is its elision of the power and agency of black women within the struggle for civil rights. Her similarly detailed analysis of the film s reception indicates again the situatedness of the film within multiple communities of discourses and the ways in which the diversity of response mirrors the cross-racial constituencies, collaborations, and conflicts that seem to prefigure her conclusion that Nothing But a Man s persisting appeal results not from timelessness but rather from multiple points of identification in a story created by a historically contingent and productive cross-racial collaboration.
The diversity of approach and reading exhibited here is evidence not only of the general multivalence of the cinematic text, but also the peculiarly rich arena for discussion provided by Nothing But a Man as a narrative. The film s appeal went far beyond the cinema, and the story was at one point being considered as the basis of both an opera and a television series. 23 Most notable perhaps was Jim Thompson s novelization published in 1970, a full six years after the movie had been released. The celebrated crime novelist s hard-boiled realism fit perfectly with the film s own neorealist sensibility and spoke to the broader themes of alienation, resistance, and self-determination evident in Thompson s own work. Furthermore, the heterogeneity of academic analysis and interest is mirrored in various popular critical responses to the film over the last fifty years, especially when viewed from the three critical moments in the life of Nothing But a Man: its original release in 1964; its cinematic rerelease in 1993; and its fortieth anniversary release on DVD in 2004. Film reviews always and inevitably give brief snapshots of the particular racial, cultural, and social contexts from which they emerge and certainly those of Nothing But a Man reveal how conversations around race were articulated at those distinct historical moments. At the same time, and unsurprisingly, they clearly also reveal a consistent concern with issues of race and representation that transcend their historical specificities. Indeed, race impinges on the critical responses in the most immediate and obvious way. A symptomatic example is to compare two reviews from when the film was first released. While Judith Crist s review in the New York Herald Tribune echoed much of the white, mainstream press in its celebration of Nothing But a Man s supposedly universal themes through which permeated the sound of recorded truth, 24 for Hoyt Fuller, writing in the Negro Digest , the film was fundamentally untruthful in its willingness to let the White South off the hook. 25
Interestingly, the reviews from 1993 and 2004 tend to speak of the film as having been rediscovered, reemerging, or being given new life. 26 Even more interestingly, the trope of loss and rediscovery is still being invoked in some of the latest responses as Nothing approaches its fourth critical moment, that of the fiftieth anniversary of its release. Writing on the British Film Institute website on the occasion of the film s release in the United Kingdom in the fall of 2013, Geoff Andrew calls it a forgotten classic that, because of its forthright but never sensationalist depiction of poverty, injustice and bigotry, retains the ability to provoke shock and anger. However, Andrew s talk of the film s years of neglect seems misplaced, especially considering its trajectory after 1993. 27
At this point when Nothing But a Man is being screened increasingly frequently for new audiences and new generations, it is important to acknowledge that the critical engagement with the film laid out in this introduction and collection is by no means offered as definitive in any way, but rather it is intended as part of the broader conversation contained within this volume and beyond it. This collection is part of an effort to institutionalize or centralize film with the black experience at its core. The discussion over what constitutes black film is central to that effort. Part of the impetus for the series Studies in the Cinema of the Black Diaspora is to address the critical neglect from which black and diasporic film has traditionally suffered. While there have been enormous strides forward in scholarly engagement with black cinema over the last twenty years or so, it is still very much underrepresented as a subject of study. But ubiquitous within the field is a discussion of meaning and definition. This profoundly complex and important issue speaks not only to the politics of racial representation in film but also to the broader cultural and historical registers of the American experience.
In making an argument for Nothing But a Man s status as, and relationship to, black film, there is an awareness that there are potentially limitless different ways of considering it and many of which would take issue with some (if not all) of the arguments and discussions laid out here. As Martin Flanagan says, film narratives are never semantically closed whether their continuation is undertaken by authors, studios or fans 28 or, indeed, academics or film critics. As we have tried to argue, the meaning and definition of the text is generated as a consequence of that text s imbrication within a potentially limitless set of communities and discourses. It is important therefore to consider that this category of black film is always open to contestation and redefinition. However, we can make one or two reasonable assertions. First, if we accept that at the very least black film must have a black perspective, then it must be agreed, again at the very least, that Nothing But a Man attempts to tell a story from a black perspective. That it might fail, as Khalil Muhammad argues, as a consequence of its reaching the limitations of its own discourse of white liberalism is an argument to be engaged. Second, notwithstanding the problematic assertions of arguments rooted in a politics of identity, it would seem to defy comprehension to imagine something we call black film without any significant black presence in front of or behind the camera. How we might then go on to define significant is an equally important and compelling issue of contention.
Without any of them dealing explicitly with the question of how black film is or might be defined, all the essays included here attempt in their variety of ways to address key issues of the problems of representations of race and speak to issues and concerns that thread throughout the history of black cinema. Not least of these are the broad questions of how blackness functions as a discourse within a knowledge system that is structured to privilege the discourse of whiteness and, then, how do filmmakers attempt to represent and engage critically with those discourses? These questions problematize the politics of racial representation by demonstrating their inescapability while simultaneously opening up a space in which we can productively deal with white iterations of blackness and vice versa. In its commitment to the politics of civil rights Nothing But a Man is situated at this critical intersection of the discourses of race, gender, and class. The film must be considered in relation to what Michael Rogin refers to as the surplus symbolic value of blacks, the power to make African Americans represent something besides themselves. 29 It struggles to subvert and undermine the dominant history of racial representation but at the same time, albeit perhaps unknowingly, cannot entirely escape its own complicity in that very history. But by crossing the boundaries of representation, and disrupting the visual and aesthetic grammar of race, Nothing But a Man parses a small domestic drama into a profoundly significant commentary on the nature of the civil rights struggle in postwar America as well as an examination of the structures of racial subjectivity. Its importance as both a cinematic and historical document is made clearly apparent in the materials collected here and, in the process, they play their part in securing the place of Nothing But a Man in the history of black cinema. 30
1 . See Thomas Cripps, The Un-formed Image, in Slow Fade to Black: The Negro American in Film (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1977).
2 . James Snead, White Screens/Black Images: Hollywood from the Dark Side (London: Routledge, 1994), 39.
3 . Clyde Taylor, The Future of Black Film: The Debate Continues, in Cinemas of the Black Diaspora: Diversity, Dependence, and Oppositionality , ed. Michael T. Martin, 457 (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1988).
4 . See J. Ronald Green, Micheaux vs. Griffith, in Straight Lick: The Cinema of Oscar Micheaux (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2000).
5 . Marc Ferro, Cinema and History (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1988), 152.
6 . Mark Reid, Redefining Black Film (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993), 2.
7 . Ibid.
8 . Thomas Cripps, Black Film as Genre (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1978), 3.
9 . Ibid., 4.
10 . Mark A. Reid, Black Lenses, Black Voices: African American Film Now (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 2005), 1.
11 . Gladstone Yearwood, Black Film as Signifying Practice: Cinema, Narration and the African-American Aesthetic Tradition (Trenton, NJ: Africa World Press, 2000), 83.
12 . Tommy Lott, A No-Theory Theory of Contemporary Black Cinema, in Representing Blackness: Issues in Film and Video , ed. Valerie Smith, 83 (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1997); ibid., 91.
13 . Elia Shohat and Robert Stam, Unthinking Eurocentrism: Multiculturalism and the Media (London: Routledge, 1994), 180.
14 . Stephen Heath, Questions of Cinema (Bloomington: Indiana University Press 1982), 107.
15 . Martin Flanagan, Bakhtin at the Movies: New Ways of Understanding Hollywood Film (Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave MacMillan, 2009), 21.
16 . Teresa DeLauritis, Alice Doesn t: Feminism, Semiotics, Cinema (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1984), 44.
17 . As Bob Young explains in his narrative of the film s production, this was very much against the wishes of the filmmakers.
18 . The world premiere of Nothing But a Man took place at the 1964 Venice Film Festival.
19 . Gary Morris, American Independent Narrative Cinema of the 60s: A Brief Survey (Courtesy of the 1992 Torino Film Festival, Bright Lights Film Journal , January 1, 2000, .
20 . Kevin Heffernan, Inner-City Exhibition and the Genre Film: Distributing Night of the Living Dead (1968), Cinema Journal 41, no. 3 (2002): 59-77, quote on 62.
21 . Christopher Sieving, Soul Searching: Black-Themed Cinema from the March on Washington to the Rise of Blaxploitation (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2011), 31.
22 . Patrick McGilligan describes how a print of Within Our Gates was discovered by Thomas Cripps in 1979 at the Cineteca Nacional in Madrid. However, it was not until 1989 that the film was acquired by the Library of Congress, with a fully restored print of the film finally being made available in 1995. See Patrick McGilligan, The Great and Only Oscar Micheaux: The Life of America s First Black Filmmaker (New York: Harper Perennial, 2007), 347.
23 . Authors conversation with Michael Roemer, July 2013.
24 . Judith Crist, The Little Movie That Makes It Big, New York Herald Tribune , December 28, 1964.
25 . Hoyt Fuller, Nothing But a Man Reconsidered, Negro Digest , May 1965, 49.
26 . See, for example, Christopher Sieving, Alabama Song: Nothing But a Man , PopMatters, October 13, 2004, ; Hal Hinson, Review of Nothing But a Man, Washington Post , July 10, 1993; Shiela Rule, 30 Years Later, A Sensitive Film of Black Family Life Re-emerges, New York Times , March 16, 1993; Vicki Vasilopolous, New Life for a 1964 Film, New York Times , November 14, 2004.
27 . Geoff Andrew, A Forgotten Classic: Nothing But a Man , BFI Film Forever, April 22, 2014, .
28 . Flanagan, Bakhtin at the Movies , 51.
29 . Michael Rogin, Blackface, White Noise: Jewish Immigrants in the Hollywood Melting Pot (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996), 14.
30 . The editors wish to point out that throughout the text whenever authors quote characters in the film, the dialog is taken from the final theatrical release version of Nothing But a Man available on DVD. The original screenplay included in this volume occasionally differs from the theatrical release.
Filmmakers Statements
Michael Roemer
THESE COMMENTS ABOUT NOTHING BUT A MAN REFLECT HOW it looks to me fifty years after we made it. If I had not come to see the film differently from the way it seemed at the time we shot it, I could not have gone on to make other films without repeating myself. Rendering our reality today seems possible only if we continually challenge our own assumptions. But I hope nothing I say here puts me out of touch with those who have been moved by it.

Robert Young and I became friends as undergraduates and stayed in touch after graduation but didn t actually work together until we were in our thirties. Though he was in documentaries and I in fiction, we shared a similar perspective and were not persuaded by most American movies at that time. In 1962 we shot a documentary about a generational slum in Palermo that we felt was the best film either of us had made. When NBC , who had sponsored it, pulled it off the air as unfit for the American living room, we left the network. We were determined to continue working together, and Bob suggested that the young African Americans he had met on his 1960 NBC White Paper documentary Sit-In would make a good feature film on a subject close to his heart.
I wouldn t have gone on what seemed a very uncertain project with anyone except Bob, and off we went in my old car. Armed with a letter of introduction from the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People), we traveled through the Deep South on what seemed an underground railroad in reverse - passed from town to town and house to house by the young men and women working with SCLC (Southern Christian Leadership Conference) and CORE (Congress of Racial Equality). Since two white men with New York license plates consistently stayed on the black side of the railroad tracks, we were often trailed by the local sheriff. We happened to find ourselves in Oxford, Mississippi, on the day the effort to integrate the university exploded into violence, but we fortunately thought the town was peaceful and left before dark. If we had known what was about to happen, we-young and not risk averse - would have stayed, to no one s benefit. Two journalists were killed in the riot and cars with Northern license plates were vandalized and overturned.
Bob was convinced that my years as a writer would complement his own experience in documentary filming, but as we spent weeks traveling through the Southern states, meeting many brave and truly impressive people, I became concerned that though we were finding wonderful settings and backgrounds, we had no foreground - no story. Bob, whose native confidence and optimism offset my deep-seated pessimism, would say: I know you ll come up with something, but I wasn t at all sure. Then, one morning in a Mississippi motel, it struck me that The Last Frontier, a screenplay I had written two years earlier, had a central story about a young couple and the man s enraged alcoholic father that could be adapted to what we had seen and learned of black life. I believe this happened shortly after our stay with James Bevel and Diane Nash, and encountering them may have helped me make the connection.
Throughout my life, I had been haunted by difference, not only as a Jewish child in Germany but in an English boarding school during World War II, and among my fellow students at an American college. I was one of the few children I knew with divorced parents; my father had left my mother when I was three and when he died, at fifty-four, I - like Duff at the funeral parlor - knew only the barest facts about him. Though everyone in my family held him responsible for his own circumstances and actions, by the time I wrote The Last Frontier, I saw that he had been the victim of circumstances - economic and psychological - over which he had no control. The parallel to the history and situation of some African American men seemed clear.
Bob brought his political awareness and ideals to our film, but I had grown up deeply suspicious of all politics and, indeed, of power not only in individuals but, more particularly, in groups. What I contributed, beyond the existing screenplay and some limited experience with directing actors, was a childhood subjected to virulent antisemitism. I was forever an outsider, invisible to others when not actually provoking them with my difference. Of course, many people see themselves this way, with their lives a ceaseless disputation between a sense of inadequacy and their often successful but sometimes costly effort to live up to majority expectations.
Bob - with his background in anthropology and the natural sciences - was as persuaded of sameness as I was a doubtful of it, though perhaps he had simply found a different way of redeeming his own sense of difference. At any rate, some of the strengths and the limitations of Nothing But a Man can be traced to its origins. It is clearly a middle-class film made by middle-class men, and unsurprisingly its appeal has been largely to the white middle class and the emerging black middle class. At the time of its first revival in 1994, the film had a brief showing at the Apollo Theater, but hardly anyone from the neighborhood came to see it.

During the production, the inevitable tensions that arise during a difficult low-budget shoot were complicated by race. There were, at the time, almost no African American film technicians - Bill Grier was the only black filmmaker I then knew - and so the crew was white with the exception of our production assistant, while the large cast was almost entirely black. Moreover, an inexperienced foreign-born white director was telling black actors what their motives and feelings were and how to shade their expression.
My own gravest error sprang from the misconception that Ivan Dixon (Duff) was on our team, and that I could call on him for help when there were problems and tensions-particularly from the influx of New York day players, who were understandably angry about our poor working conditions. On two occasions when I turned to Ivan for help and then expressed disappointment that he couldn t cross the line between black and white, I put him in an impossible bind. Because of the close connection of the story to my own experience, I had a deeply personal identification with the central figure and failed to recognize the line of demarcation that the racialization of the original story entailed. From my subjective vantage point, the film was as much his as ours. Moreover, as a member of a white minority in Europe and with my limited experience with African American men, it did not occur to me that I might be seen as part of a power structure, though my role of director would have reinforced this perception.
The second time I imposed on Ivan almost ended the film, and it was our black production assistant who quite literally saved it. During the crisis I finally learned my lesson. When I turned to Abbey for help, she said: Mike, when the chips are down, you are white and I am black.

Almost the moment we finished our work in the cutting room - where, as a member of the editors union, I could function as Luke Bennett s assistant - I found myself overwhelmed by a sense of failure. The completed film suddenly seemed manipulative instead of looking as true as it had while we were shooting. I felt that an unconscious need to be liked and approved had compromised the work. I believe that - appearances and reviewers to the contrary - we had not done anything courageous, but had succeeded in pleasing the liberal art theater audience. I was troubled, moreover, by my very skill at manipulating their feelings. From the age of seventeen on, I had watched American films intensively, worked on them once I got out of college, and read Variety carefully for years. Though I was not nearly conscious of it at the time, I knew what audiences wanted and had become adept at affecting them.
No doubt my camouflaged manipulative skills had been forged in Berlin. They had helped me survive, and when I turned to filmmaking, they came usefully to hand without my being aware of them. But by the time our film was finished, I found myself no longer willing to survive by hiding and indirection. Psychologically, I had arrived at the point where Duff is at the end of the story.

Though manipulating the material and the performances, and calculating their effect, was largely unconscious, it wasn t altogether innocent. While we were casting, James Earl Jones came by to say that if he were to take the part of Duff he would have to play him angry from the start. I might have told him, legitimately, that the African American men we had met in the South had transmuted their anger, fully aware it would destroy them. Instead, I remember telling him that though his reading was true to the facts, our audience would need to see where the anger was coming from: we had to get them on Duff s side, and seeing him angry from the start would lose them.
I remember as well that when we added a third generation - Duff s son - to the core family of the original story and realized that Duff might pick him up at the end, I said: That ll get to everybody! Some cunning was clearly at work. I further remember a moment of triumph when we looked at the first cut. The industry had a saying that if you have a good - that is, effective - ending, the audience will forgive you a great deal, and leave emotionally satisfied. When I saw the ending in place, I knew we had a working movie. While we were shooting the last scene, Ivan - who asked for very few line changes - did not want to say: Baby, I feel so free inside. Since we don t see his face when he speaks, I could tell him, and mean it, that we would decide on using or dropping the line in the cutting room. To my great regret, it remained in the film. I find it painfully embarrassing, though I ve met people - all, I believe, white - who said it was their favorite line.
Ivan and Abbey are not only more beautiful than most of us, but the figures they play are more beautiful on the inside - clean, clear, and uncontradicted, not riven by the doubts and inner conflicts that trouble so many. Like the heroes and heroines of popular stories, Duff and Josie reflect the way we would like to see ourselves, reacting to every situation in a way we understand perfectly. We can always identify with them; in today s entertainment lingo, they are one hundred percent relatable. The script was brave enough to let Duff push his pregnant wife to the floor and perceptive enough to show where the violence originated. But it never has him do any real wrong; neither Josie nor he make a single bad move. They do exactly what we would like to see ourselves doing under the circumstances. Duff is a popular hero who happens to be black. If he had been white, Paul Newman might have played him.

Since Bob could shoot and I had some experience working with actors, he became the cameraman and I the director. But I never said print without turning to him to make sure he felt as I did about the take. Without his and the actors confidence in the work there was no way I could have done it. I have been criticized for the tight control I exercise over actors - not only on Nothing But a Man but on all my films. In part, no doubt, this has its source in anxiety, but on the first film it seemed justified by needing to turn a few experienced performers and a large group of nonprofessionals into an ensemble. There was at the time barely any work for African American actors, and our cast included men and women who made their living as dry cleaners, bartenders, social workers, and high school teachers - some of whom had always wanted to act, and others who looked and sounded right and were willing to join us.
The person who made it possible for me with my limited experience to direct actors was a man of the German theater at the boarding school where I spent the Second World War. He stoked the boiler, did the heavy work in the garden, and directed our plays. I had the good fortune of witnessing how - with infinite patience and persistence - he managed to get performances from children who were not the least bit interested in acting. Refusing to settle for anything less than the best we could do, he succeeded in making an ensemble out of our motley crew. His casting was uncanny, with girls frequently in the parts of men, and the performances he got from us were persuasive; during one production, we were startled to see adults in the audience weeping. It was this man who showed me a way of working. The slow, painstaking process he had used prompted me to spend three weeks with Julius Harris, often three or four hours a day, working on key moments in the script before we did his screen test. When Charles Gordone - whose name was unaccountably and inexcusably left out of the credits - introduced us to him, Julius was a male nurse - a deeply empathetic human being, who had seen a great deal of suffering and fully understood the part of Duff s father. I remember several occasions when his work on the set astounded the other actors. Without being aware of the discipline involved, he had turned himself into a method actor.
Since I am not a professional director and have never directed anything I didn t write, I invariably have a very specific picture of the way scenes should play. This is both useful and a limitation. It can certainly be hard on performers, who may well feel their own contributions are limited. But neither Ivan nor Abbey complained at the time, and Julius didn t feel hemmed in. They seemed completely comfortable with our approach and interpretations.
With respect to Ivan s comment that I used actors like puppets, I see myself as a puppet as well, both while I am writing and directing - enthralled to a story that allows me little freedom or choice. The process of writing is not, for me, an act of the will, but rather a process of discovering, over an extended period of time, what must happen. Everything seems conditioned - in part by my own limitations. At the outset of a project, I have no idea what will happen, but at the end it inevitably turns out to have been wholly determined by factors not subject to my will or preferences. Once the script is written, I try - as it were, obediently - to carry out the task of shooting it. I may well seem like a dictator on the set, but believe I have myself taken dictation. Of course every dictator could make this excuse.
I am well aware that this flies in the face of our fundamental American creed that each of us is free and empowered to make our own destiny - a creed that is clearly contradicted by our movies and by the stories that run on television twenty-four hours a day. Every one of them is over before it begins, with the actors speaking predetermined lines and doing what the script calls on them to do. We think of them as entertainments, but we may be addicted to them in part because they suggest the very opposite of what we believe. They may be real to us, albeit in a realm separate from everyday reality, just as those who believe in the sacred think of it as a realm that is separate from our physical existence. Significantly, both involve a surrender of the free will we subscribe to - or must subscribe to.
Film can beguile us into believing that it renders the world as it is. While the surfaces of Southern black life in our film look persuasive, what we really believe and lend ourselves to is the inner experience of Duff and Josie. Some surfaces are clearly erroneous. It seems surprising - and significant - that no one has ever questioned why the whites have Southern accents but the blacks don t. We knew that getting nonactors to master an unfamiliar accent would have absorbed all their energy and attention and focused their work on the surface. I never even asked them to try. Moreover, though humor has been a constant of black life-and two Jews should have recognized the parallel with Jewish life - it is almost totally absent in the film. Bob came up with the one humorous moment while I, for deeply personal reasons, was preoccupied with the injuries and insults suffered by the figures and with the way they handle their anger.

After all these years of reading comments about the film, I found the observations of Khalil Mohammad among the most interesting and pertinent. His observations about the indeterminacy of the film seem altogether valid, though they may apply to most fiction.
In stories, facts matter largely to the extent that they substantiate or undermine the personal narrative, since both those who tell them and their audiences are focused on the experience and feelings of the central figure or figures, which become their own. Facts are the scrim that allows us access to their interior - though this in no way justifies exploiting them or using them manipulatively.
At its core, Nothing But a Man is a personal story - initially my own, with all the limitations implicit in its origin - that we grafted onto a black Southern community. As Khalil says, race and class were hitched onto two individuals who effectively resemble all of us or, rather, resemble how we would like to see ourselves. What further persuades us of their existence on the screen is the particularity of Ivan and Abbey, as well as the film s documentary surfaces, most significantly the black skin of our actors that Bob lit with such care and tenderness. Under the surface, at the structural level, a coincidence between my own experience and that of a representative black man may contribute to such validity as the story has. White liberal audiences have responded positively to its hopeful humanism, since it wipes out fundamental differences and makes all of us alike. That feeling was common to white civil rights workers and sympathizers and certainly imbued Bob and me. But it is easy to see why robbing Duff of his blackness, his particular otherness, is not just unrealistic but offensive to some - much as turning the Holocaust into one more instance of human inhumanity is offensive to Jews. It looks like one more depersonalization.
There is a reason for the focus on the personal in stories. Our socialization in childhood and adolescence makes us critically aware of others, the group, and the community. Yet every belief system, including the most rigidly theocratic, insists on the individual, who is expected to police him or herself. A measure of individual freedom - our vaunted freedom of the will - must be inculcated in us from early on, and fictions very likely continue to be an integral part of our lives because they appear to confirm it even though they actually undermine it.
As individuals, we may ourselves be little more than a necessary social construct we believe in because we have been told from childhood on that we are separate and exercise control over ourselves. Our biology supports the assumption that we are separate beings, but where you and I - or within and without - begin and terminate seems highly uncertain. Like religious faith, stories serve in large part to substantiate each one of us by focusing attention on the solitary traveler - the mythic hero who must slay monsters alone, the private eye who cannot go to the police - the very loner who, at critical moments, we are all expected to be, both in our public and private lives.
Nothing But a Man is focused on Duff and happens largely in the supposedly private space between a few people, with a close-up camera bearing out the focus of the story on the personal and intimate. Such groups as appear serve largely to isolate Duff and Josie, to substantiate them - and us - as separate beings. We identify with them because, deep down, most of us feel we are outsiders. Legitimately, for the community needs for us to be separate or we can t be held individually responsible. Without being aware of it, we are kept in an unresolvable double bind - we must be both an integral part of the whole and apart from it, at once integrated and alone. The indeterminacy Khalil sees as a salient characteristic of Nothing But a Man is a mark of the inner realm that is the reallocation of most fictions, irrespective of their realist or nonrealist surfaces.
Like the individual who embodies it, the inner realm may well originate in a communal mandate. During its formative phase, it is clearly a response to the outer world. But since it seems to originate many of our actions and reactions - we might call them our behavior - we think of it as the domain of the will. This suggests that there is a point - though only courts of law identify it unmistakably - when the self acquires autonomy. When Duff pushes Josie to the floor, the inner realm is translated into an action in the physical world. But to say he has chosen to do it is to ignore the ruthless exploitative system - one that has been in place for centuries - that is acting through him. Of course, believing he has a choice is understandable, for unless we can think of ourselves as making choices and decisions, our own sense of self is fatally undermined.
The almost total absence of community to which Khalil points is striking and makes the film an invalid rendering of Southern blacks in the 1960s. The story skillfully justifies Duff s isolation by his membership in the section gang, though the very first scenes establish that he is an outsider even here.

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