Nothing But A Man (1964) Revisited
By: Caroline Deurwarder
For my second cultural artifact blog assignment I chose to do an in depth analysis of one of my favorite movies “Nothing but a Man”. “Nothing but a Man” is an independently produced film, which closely coincides with central themes from the civil rights movement. Shot in a documentary-like style fashion, the film offers an alternative outlook on the ways in which race, gender, and labor politics intersect and manifest during the civil rights era. The reason why I chose this particular film because it showcases how African American families specifically men chose to either endure or resist Jim Crow era racism in the South and Great migration and the consequences that come about. The film also exhibits black communal spaces and the importance of community.
“Nothing but a Man,” directed by Michael Roemer and Robert Young depicts a young black man struggling and coping with the economic effects of racism in Birmingham Alabama. The film is centered on the main character, Duffy Anderson, who dares to reject social norms, which help to support the continuation of black exploitation and degradation. On a surface level, the storyline is rather simple: a working class man falls in love with a grounded, intelligent, and respectable woman, the schoolteacher and preacher’s daughter, Josie Dawson. Duffy chooses to settle down with Josie after he pays a visit to see his illegitimate son and alcoholic father. Despite his promising future with Josie, Duffy falls victim of the South’s racist infrastructure and is later blacklisted because he continuously refuses to be treated as anything less than a man. The film peruses themes including justice, masculinity, familial structures, humiliation, and social and institutional racism by providing two characters’ that either assimilates well with the racists’ south (Josie’s father the preacher Reverend Dawson) or are punished by the oppressive system (Duffy Anderson). The juxtaposition of these two characters shows that one has to either “act like a nigger” or perform in a subservient manner to their white counterparts in order to sustain their livelihoods or, on the other hand, refuse to do so and take on the consequences. I will be focusing on four scenes that uncover the all-encompassing persistent nature of white institutionalized racism in the South.
The opening scene of the film exhibits the silhouette of a lonesome black man drilling along side the railroad tracks. The viewers do not see the face of the unidentified black man just the work being done. Then the camera angle pans out to reveal a group of black men working alongside the railroad tracks. This simple scene symbolically showcases the relationship between blackness and manual labor in the South. This scene conjures up images of convict leasing and chain gangs that were prevalent during the 19th century. According to the documentary “Slavery by Another Name,” African American labor was socially and politically institutionalized well after emancipation. The central cause for the continuation of black labor is due to the push back of white resistance in the South. In 1874, the white South made it their mission to use their political power to up vote political figures who were in favor for black subordination. New laws state after state targeted black people and effectively criminalized black life. Misdemeanor laws turned into felony laws specifically targeting blacks:
Spitting, talking loudly next to white people, loitering walking next to railroads, selling goods after dark, pig laws, petty theft, and vagrancy laws. Convict leasing and chain gangs emerged after the reconstruction era. Even though slavery was abolished whites found loopholes to force African Americans back into manual labor. Convict leasing prisoners were seen as inherent criminals. Chain gangs were a group of prisoners chained together to perform menial work as a form of punishment. Such punishment included repairing buildings, building roads or clearing roads. Chain gangs were often held to the same types of brutality as convict workers. Even though chain gangs and convict workers were not explicitly mentioned in the film, the images presented reinforce notions of racialized labor.
The date scene in which Duffy and Josie are sitting in the car is just one of many scenes that show how easy it is for white men to travel through private black spaces. The dating scene starts out with Duffy and Josie talking about their goals in life when suddenly two young white men interrupt them. When one of the men shines a flashlight at Duffy’s face, Duffy snarls, “Cut that out”. The man with the flashlight persists in shining the flashlight in Josie’s face and then moves the light to her chest. Duffy yells, “I said cut that out.” The white man without the flashlight says, “Don’t start no trouble boy,” then smirks; the man with the flashlight responds, “Let’s go that the preacher’s girl, you mess with him you get old man Johnson on your back.” This disturbing scene shows the many ways in which Duffy‘s masculinity is put into question. The fact that the men feel the need to push boundaries by shining the flashlight on Josie’s chest not only shows a white superiority complex but also brings to light past racist sentiments associated with white men’s ownership of black women’s bodies. According to the article “The Past Is Ever Present Recognizing the New Racism” past racist sentiment associated with white men’s ownership of black women’s bodies predates back to Chattel Slavery. Under chattel slavery, African American women and men “were objectified and turned into commodities that were traded in the marketplace (55).” For black women gender-specific commodification closely tied with the womb and reproductive capabilities. “Black women’s sexuality and reproductive capacity presented opportunities for forms of sexual exploitation and sexual slavery (56).” In order to mask white sexual exploitation controlling images like the hypersexual Jezebel were created to lessen blame on the (white) men and place blame on women.
Black men were objectified in a different way. Black men were depicted as wild, violent brutes whose bodies were specifically made for hard physical labor. In order for whites to control black men, Whites created the controlling image of the buck (Black Sexual Politics, 56). For “trained” black men and black women who exhibited qualities of domestic servants white elites created controlling images of Uncle Tom and Mammy “as prototypes of asexual, safe, assimilated and subordinate Black People.”
The film uses the prototype of the Uncle Tom to describe Rev Dawson and the prototype of the buck to describe Duffy to present opposing viewpoints of dealing with the racist South.
The scenes in which there are interactions between white locals and black men show the strict the ways in which black men should perform or act to appease white men. The scene following depicts Josie introducing Duffy to Reverend Dawson and the school superintendent, Mr. Johnson. The scene starts out with Reverend Dawson putting on Mr. Johnson’s coat and fixing Johnson’s collar. After Josie leaves the room Johnson says, “So you are courting the preacher’s girl; you just better watch your step boy he will preach you right into hell.” Johnson then turns to Reverend Dawson and says, “I am counting on you, Johnson; wouldn’t do for one of your people to sue like this.” Reverend Dawson replies “I know…that will make the folks very happy.” Johnson talks at Reverend Dawson and Dawson listens and obeys his command; there was no objections or uneasiness, as opposed to the dating scene, in which the tension between the white locals is drawn out and the hostility and condescension is blatant. This particular scene showcases one way black men negotiated new understandings of black masculinity. To be subordinate to white men allowed temporary approval. Even though Reverend Dawson had some power and control over his community his power is directly associated with Mr. Johnson.
Another scene, that shows the way in which white men travel through private black spaces is the gas station scene. A group of white men sit there and demand answers and complete servitude, and when Duffy play along with their banter one of the men says, “Goddam boy you think you’re white.” They continue to spew out insults mainly concerning his wife: “I bet you she’s a sly little nigger, that girl; wouldn’t mind a piece of her myself.” Duffy’s refusal to play along and “act like a nigger” puts him in a position where mindless insults and threats are used to forcefully put him in his place. When he tries to retain his dignity and reclaim his manhood, he is often left without a job. According to article Black Sexual Politics, “Black men were place in the position of being unable to protect the women they loved from sexual assault.”
“Nothing but a Man” shows the roles which black men have to play in order to sustain their lives in the racist south. In order to operate in a white operated town, black men would often have to act like Reverend Dawson and abide by racist customs, even if it costs one’s dignity and respect.
LaShawnDa Pittman. (2015). Black Feminism lecture2. (PPT slides) Retrieved from https://canvas.uw.edu/courses/986700/files/folder/Course%2520Lectures?preview=33866317
LaShawnDa Pittman. (2015). Black Sexual Politics lecture. (PPT slides) Retrieved from https://canvas.uw.edu/courses/986700/files/folder/Course%2520Lectures?preview=33866362