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The Politics and Poetics of Black Film

The Politics and Poetics of Black Film: Nothing But a Man

David C. Wall
Michael T. Martin
Copyright Date: 2015
Published by: Indiana University Press
Pages: 306
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  • Book Info
    The Politics and Poetics of Black Film
    Book Description:

    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.

    eISBN: 978-0-253-01850-2
    Subjects: Film Studies, Performing Arts

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-xii)
  4. Introduction: Nothing But a Man and the Question of Black Film
    (pp. 1-22)
    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 isablack 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
      (pp. 25-39)

      THESE COMMENTS ABOUTNOTHING BUT A MANREFLECT 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...

    • Robert Young
      (pp. 40-52)

      FORTY-EIGHT YEARS HAD PASSED SINCE MIKE ROEMER AND I made Nothing But a Man, so I attended the symposium at Indiana University dedicated both to it andThe Spook Who Sat by the Doorwith great interest and anticipation. This was my first invitation to participate in a formal discussion about the film, and it was highly satisfying to see renewed critical attention after all this time. A most interesting and illuminating experience, the symposium demonstrated that a piece of work no longer belongs to its creators once it’s out in the world. Of course, that is the way it...


    • Demanding Dignity: Nothing But a Man
      (pp. 55-71)
      Bruce Dick and Mark Vogel

      IN HIS JANUARY 1963 INAUGURAL ADDRESS AS GOVERNOR OF Alabama, George C. Wallace proclaimed, “I draw the line in the dust and toss the gauntlet before the feet of tyranny, and I say segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.”¹ Within days of Wallace’s declaration, disturbances broke out in towns and cities across the state, including Birmingham, where, according to an earlier newspaper report, authorities had used “the whip, the razor, the gun, the bomb, the torch, the club, the knife, the mob, the police and many branches of the state’s apparatus” to ensure racial separation.² By April, Birmingham police had...

    • Nothing But a Man
      (pp. 72-81)
      Thomas Cripps

      IN RECENT YEARS, A SUBGENRE OF BLACK FILM HAS celebrated the heroism of the picaresque outlaw who, like Sir Gawain in mortal combat with the Green Knight, Lancelot in pursuit of the Holy Grail, or Amos Tutuola’s novelPalm Wine Drinkard(1952) in quest of the ultimate high, seeks himself in brave quest outside the benisons of society. The urban outlaw has especially appealed to a number of black writers. The hero of the best novel ever written by a black, Ralph Ellison’sThe Invisible Man(1952), came from this picaresque tradition. In black genre film, this outlaw is a...

    • The Derailed Romance in Nothing But a Man
      (pp. 82-99)
      Karen Bowdre

      NOTHING BUT A MAN(1964) IS A COMPELLING FILM THAT depicts some of the racial and social challenges in the life of an African American railroad worker in the early 1960s. One of the many reasons this film stands out from other films with black casts is its exceptional and complicated portrayal of an African American romantic relationship. Before analyzing this unusual and afflicted cinematic union, I examine Josie Dawson and Duff Anderson as products not only from the minds of Michael Roemer and Robert Young but also as representative of young African American people during a turbulent time socially,...

    • Can’t Stay, Can’t Go: What Is History to a Cinematic Imagination?
      (pp. 101-113)
      Terri Francis

      FOREGROUNDING THE ARTIST’S EXPERIENCE, BOB YOUNG’S words quoted here convey his stylistic choices forNothing But a Man(1964) and they help us to think about the capacity of fiction film to make the past intelligible and to envision varied ways of approaching the relationship between film and history. Young and Michael Roemer, the film’s cowriter and director, chose to make a film whose photography relies not on wide observational, contextual angles but instead on close, “myopic” framing on the face that emphasizes skin, eyes, and mouth. The conflicts in the film are highly personal, between neighbors, between friends, and...

    • Civil Rights, Labor, and Sexual Politics on Screen in Nothing But a Man
      (pp. 114-140)
      Judith E. Smith

      THE FILMNOTHING BUT A MANOPENS WITH A LONG PAN OF A crew of black railroad workers laying tracks, in a Southern rural landscape. Its first sounds are those of the jackhammer, pounding in the spikes; the camera comes upon the man operating it from behind. The title appears, taken from the refrain of the folk ballad about the legendary black steel-driving man, John Henry. Then the camera shows the face of the jackhammer operator, Ivan Dixon, the film’s steel-driving hero, in two long close-ups. Other black crew members come into focus, laying the rail dropped by a white...


    • Historicity and Possibility in Nothing But a Man: A Conversation with Khalil Muhammad
      (pp. 143-169)
      Michael T. Martin and David Wall

      MICHAEL T. MARTIN [MTM]: Please elaborate the historical setting forNothing But a Manand its correspondence to the political economy and actuality of Southern race relations circa the late 1950s–1960s.

      KHALIL MUHAMMAD [KM]: The film emerges at a moment when the future of black citizenship in the United States was indeterminate. Recall, it’s the early 1960s and the civil rights movement had stalled after the earlier successes of Brown v. Board of Education [1954], the Montgomery [Alabama] bus boycott [1955], and the integration of Central High in Little Rock, Arkansas [1957]. It’s a period about making real the...

    • Cinematic Principles and Practice at Work in Nothing But a Man: A Conversation with Robert Young
      (pp. 171-200)
      Michael T. Martin and David Wall

      MICHAEL T. MARTIN (MTM): Let’s begin, Mr. Young, withNothing But a Man’s release in 1964 followed by its rerelease thirty years later in 1993. How was it received by critics and by audiences in 1964?

      ROBERT YOUNG (RY): It was very well received in 1964, but the exhibition was very limited. All of the major press reviewed it. It got marvelous reviews and was on most of the “Best Ten” lists. I have a whole book of them. To me, it’s wasteful to read, but there was a lot of praise for the film because there hadn’t been a...


    • Nothing But a Man (1964)
      (pp. 203-266)
      Michael Roemer and Robert Young

      JOCKO Go to hell, Frankie.

      FRANKIE Man, you sure one ugly cat!

      He takes the cigarettes Jocko has rolled, sailor-style, into the sleeve of his T-shirt.

      JOCKO Why don’t you guys buy your own?

      FRANKIE ’Oughta give up smoking, Jocko.

      He stops in front of an older man, who is writing a letter.

      FRANKIE How much longer we got on this stretch, Riddick?

      RIDDICK Five weeks, maybe six.

      FRANKIE Man, what a dump.

      He circles restlessly past two card players back to Duff, who is clipping his fingernails.

      FRANKIE What you getting’ all pretty for?

      DUFF (with a grin) Why...


    • from Cinema V Distributing (1965)
      (pp. 269-276)

      Duff Anderson (IVAN QIXQN) is a Negro Worker on the railroad in a small southern town. He has no roots, no responsibilities, Then he meets an attractive school teacher, Josie (ABBEY LINCOLN ) at a church social, the Negro church of which her father is minister. The worlds they live in are very different, and her father is against, it, but she falls in love with him and he, almost unwillingly, falls in love with her. He is unable to accept the responstbll\ty of the relationship until one day when he takes a bus tri p to a nearby town,...


    • Selected Filmography: Michael Roemer
      (pp. 279-280)
    • Selected Filmography: Robert Young
      (pp. 281-284)
  11. Selected Bibliography
    (pp. 285-286)
  12. Contributors
    (pp. 287-290)
  13. Index
    (pp. 291-294)