Nothing But a Man (1964) and Human Dignity

I know Ivan Dixon from Hogan’s Heroes and I’m hardly ashamed of that. He is a lifelong friend forged out of days poring over episodes on classic television stations. Whether he was satisfied with the work is an entirely different conversation, but I am thankful for what he brought to the ensemble in terms of humor and his reliable presence.

Then, recent viewings of Too Late Blues and A Raisin in The Sun, introduced Dixon into my life again in a renewed context. It was a new way to appreciate him even as I’ve become more aware of his prolific work behind the camera in more recent years.

However, in Nothing But a Man, he showcases a depth of character and a facet of the human experience, that frankly, was never accessible in a zany half-hour CBS comedy about American prisoners in a German Luftstalag or any of the smaller film roles he was bequeathed.

The images open with jackhammers as a gang of black section hands help lay down the railroad tracks. It’s hardly breezy work. In return for their sweat and middling conditions, they get a wage and a certain amount of freedom. In the evenings they can be found playing cards or frequenting the local beer parlors with “Heatwave” jamming away in the background. It’s lo-fi instant ambiance and Motown proves to be the perfect soundtrack for this film.

Although he’s not much of a churchgoer, Duff Anderson does show up at a local church meeting in Alabama for some food and southern hospitality. The girl dishing out the meal catches his eye. Josie Dawson (Abbey Lincoln) is the local teacher and the preacher’s daughter. This feels like an instant red flag. Anderson’s not exactly a moral saint, but he relishes her company.

There’s a modest kinship rapidly blooming between them. Even so, Nothing But a Man is a film that feels attentive to the thoughts and feelings of its characters spoken not simply through their words but the expressions on their faces and their actions. Dixon has such classically handsome features, and there’s something unequivocally lovely and unassuming about Abbie Lincoln’s smile. They bring the best out of each other as their romance strengthens.

However, there are other underlying issues to contend with. He has a young son, although he’s never been married before. The reverend looks at him with suspicion. He’s not the marrying kind. Even he knows it, but as a bastion of society, and a mediator between the black and white communities, Josie’s father is not welcoming of any disruption to his moral standing. It’s easy to feel for him even as the gravitational pull of empathy drags us in other directions.

Duff tells the preacher, “Us colored folks got a lotta churchgoing. It’s the white folks who need it real bad.” Of course, the irony of the words can’t be lost on us. Most if not all the white folks have their own churches to go to on Sunday, but it has no positive impact on their lives. I’m sure neither race has a total monopoly on this lukewarm reality. It’s human nature.

But there’s still another question to be answered: How did two Jewish men from up North hone in on such a resonating story of a black community, by taking New Jersey locales and fashioning them into the Deep South? It has to begin with this same kind of personal identification — some form of shared empathy — because they could not get close to the material any other way.

One thing that comes with watching films en masse is how they have the ability to inform one another. Take Pressure Points about a black psychiatrist treating a white neo-Nazi. He espouses vitriolic rhetoric about turning Blacks and Jews into the world’s scapegoats. He never uses the exact words, but it’s plain he believes them to be subhuman. I’m no expert, but it’s difficult for me to think of any group that has been more oppressed than these two.

However, this is not Stanley Kramer at work. It’s not a film about messages or social significance. Instead, we are allowed the privilege to walk alongside this man and woman, and even for a few moments become privy to their circumstances as depicted on screen.

It becomes apparent how the specter of racism dwells over every element of daily life. It cannot be conveniently compartmentalized or ignored because it always has a way of rearing its ugly head. White co-workers try and whip up “friendly” small-talk couched with subtle belittling and microaggressions. And you cannot have a quiet car ride without being accosted.

For whatever his negligible crimes against humanity might be, Duff is considered a troublemaker and standoffish. He won’t be cowed. The next stage in the systematic onslaught is bodily threats — he’s chastised mercilessly as a gas station attendant —  only to be laid off out of fear of retaliation.  And it doesn’t stop there as he’s totally blackballed and all the work propositions mysteriously dry up all around him. There is no deliverance from such a sphere of existence.

His primary problem is that he’s a proud man in an environment that is not ready to give him the respect he requires. What’s striking about Dixon’s portrayal is how it never feels combative or confrontational. That’s never his M.O., but he also will not degrade or ingratiate himself as a basic act of survival. There are some things that run deeper still, and he knows no other way than to be true to himself.

Self-proclaimed experts always talk about the problem with families is the lack of a father figure. But fathers need work and here you see the issue in its totality. It plays out throughout this movie. There’s hopelessness, then desperation, and a lashing out at all those close at hand — wives and children. However, while all this looks to be another portrait of dissolution and a man’s restlessness in a world that won’t let him be, it actually rings with a final note of hope.

I would never accuse Sidney Poitier of grandstanding, but there is a sense Dixon has the same substance as his peer, but this story feels even more mundane than the bulk of Poitier’s Hollywood work. The canvas and the drama are distilled to these very humble forms, and yet there is something powerful in these simple building blocks.

And if there is not a Hollywood happy ending, since this picture shuns everything that is expected by contemporary conventions, Duff does maintain his sense of human dignity. It’s all right there in the title. He was never asking much of others. Never looking for trouble. He just wants to be given the inalienable right to be a man.

For some, that’s easier than it is for others. Let us strive tirelessly for the day when all can claim that they really and truly are created equal. Nothing But a Man is a poignant reminder that this is still far from a reality.

I always knew Ivan Dixon was special, but I will never look at him the same way again. Abbey Lincoln also won a new fan today. I wish I had been aware of her career and her music sooner. But there’s no time like the present to rectify the situation. Let’s not live under the lie that says otherwise.

4.5/5 Stars

A Raisin in the Sun (1961)

It seems that some of the greatest strides in diverse representation have found their roots on the stage. One of the cornerstone examples would have to be Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun (1961). I saw the film adaptation quite a few years ago, but now, with a renewed sense of context, it’s ripe with so much more discovery.

While it might feel like a trivial observation, I was reminded how the movie is laden with nagging, moaning, and groaning as you would find in any family living in close quarters. For this very reason, the stage conventions feel less of a limitation and more of an expression of this family’s tangible struggle.  But it also feels like a safe space for the black cast where they are able to express themselves in all manner of ways. One moment they’re wild — gesticulating all over the place — and the next minute is the height of silliness. It feels almost unprecedented for the era.

Sidney Poitier is often shafted for playing an “Uncle Tom” because detractors have some kind of preconceived straw man of him they’re prepared to tear down. Whatever your thoughts on this, Walter Lee Younger is just the character to rip those presumptions down to their foundation. His main credo is built around the idea that money is life and despite everything Poitier became known for over his illustrious career, in A Rasin in the Sun, nobility goes straight out the window.

But it’s not simply a story about a man, because we must consider the entire family as they wait impatiently for the $10,000 insurance check set to be bequeathed to their matriarch Lena Younger. Walter Lee can’t wait to siphon off some of the funds for one of his shady business deals.

His sister, Beneatha, is a young free-minded woman of the modern world with aspirations of becoming a doctor. She’s hoping for some financial support to make her dreams come true. Marriage is considered an afterthought.

However, whatever she might say, there are two worthy suitors played by a pair of familiar faces. Ivan Dixon is the benevolent Nigerian suitor: Mr. Asagai, tickled pink by her iron will and prepared to take her back to his homeland. The other is Lou Gossett Jr’s George. He’s hoodwinked by Beneatha’s recent behavior and when he comes a calling, he’s left on the couch to crawl out of his skin. Walter’s ready with the rich black college boy wisecracks or else prepared to proposition the boy’s daddy with one of his business ideas.

Beneatha and Walter have plenty of sibling animosity to go around (I dissected something that looked just like you yesterday). And she also receives the ire of her mother because God has no place in her personal destiny. She tells the scandalized old lady point blank, “I get so tired of Him getting all the credit for everything the human race achieves through its own stubborn effort. There’s only man and it’s he who makes miracles.” Needless to say, it doesn’t go well.

Because the movie is borne out of this generational difference. Lena Younger (Claudia McNeil) was raised up a certain way, and God will always be present in her house just as family and charity are of great importance to her. She’s not a woman trained in book learning, but she is a picture of stalwart character. Keeping her family together means everything to her, but she will never become a slave to money.

Ruby Dee is the only one who seems unencumbered by the thought of worldly wealth and what it will do to them, both good and bad. Instead, she works diligently at her laundry and becomes a kind of calming force in a house that feels constantly in a state of familial tumult.

This is what makes their final introduction to their new home that Lena plans to purchase so cathartic. When they drive up, walk up the steps, and then rush around the house, it’s a slice of suburban heaven, albeit situated in an all-white neighborhood. As a housewarming gift, her kids pitch in for some gardening tools, and it speaks to her character — always wanting to till the soil and cultivate all that is around her with love.

However, we must also take a moment to mention John Fiedler and Clybourne Park Improvement Association. He’s a favorite of mine from 12 Angry Men, The Odd Couple, Bob Newhart, and of course, he’s the voice of Piglet. What an inspired piece of casting it is to have this diffident, genteel little man be the face of de facto racism in the world we live in. He’s perfectly civil; he will gladly trade pleasantries, and yet his people want no part of blacks in their neighborhood. At any rate, it doesn’t fit the agenda or the name of their little two-bit association.

It all comes down to his fabled line: “race prejudice simply doesn’t enter into it.” These are like trigger words signaling a gunshot going off. When he’s out of the room, the more satirical members of the Younger family rephrase his words: “he can’t understand why people can’t learn to sit down and hate someone with good Christian fellowship.”

If you’re anything like me, these words sting a little. But that’s nothing compared to what hits Walter. The hammer drops when a no-good shyster runs off with some of his money. Ever the principled moral compass, Lena gladly loves others at their lowest, when they’ve made a mess of things and the world has whipped them. Because despite all of her unyielding values, she’s a creature of love and integrity.

Poitier makes his final stand — his first prominent act as head of the household with the blessing of his mother — like his father would have done before him. So perhaps I wasn’t quite right. Even in this picture, Poitier makes a stab at nobility. The greatest part is how he’s given license to fail.

Although their hope might be deferred, they still have hope nonetheless. What a lovely reminder it is about the human spirit. We are thoroughly irrepressible creatures and strengthened in the arms of our loved ones. Let that hope reap heavy dividends. My prayer is this comes sooner rather than later.

4/5 Stars

What happens to a dream deferred?
      Does it dry up
      like a raisin in the sun?
      Or fester like a sore—
      And then run?
      Does it stink like rotten meat?
      Or crust and sugar over—
      like a syrupy sweet?
      Maybe it just sags
      like a heavy load.
      Or does it explode?
      – Langston Hughes

6 Decades Blogathon for National Classic Movie Day

Thank you to Classic Film and TV Cafe for hosting this year’s 6 Films — 6 Decades Blogathon for National Classic Movie Day!

It’s been a perennial enjoyment the last few years to hear the topic and then go to work curating a personal list. In keeping with the impetus of the occasion, I wanted to share some lesser-known films that I’ve enjoyed over the course of the last year or two.

This is a list of new favorites if you will, ranging from the 20s to the 70s, and like every year, I will do my best to fudge the rules to get as many extra recommendations in as I can. I hope you don’t hold it against me and hopefully, you will find some of these films as enjoyable as I did.

Without further ado, here are my picks, and once more, Happy National Classic Movie Day!

Go West (1925)

Riding High With Buster Keaton in “Go West” – Cowboys and Indians Magazine

I feel like in the 21st century — and this is only a personal observation — Buster Keaton has grown in esteem. Chaplin was always the zenith of cinematic pathos and heart. He cannot be disregarded as the one-time king of the movies. But Keaton, with his Stone Face and irrepressible spirit, is also strangely compelling in the modern arena we find ourselves in.

In pictures like Sherlock Jr. and Steamboat Bill Jr., he’s part magician, part daredevil stuntman, who, in the age before CGI, dared to play with our expectations and put himself in all sorts of visual gags for our amusement. It’s extraordinary to watch him even a century later. But whereas The Tramp was taken with Edna Purviance, the pretty blind girl (Virginia Cherill), or even Paulette Goddard’s feisty Gamin, Buster Keaton’s finest leading lady could arguably be a cow.

Go West earns its title from the potentially apocryphal quote from Horace Greeley, but the glories of the movie are born out of Keaton’s ability to take on all the nascent tropes of the Western landscape. He’s the anti-cowboy, the city slicker, the cast aside everyman, who doesn’t quite fit the world. And yet he’s still a hero, and he gets the girl in the end. You might think I’m being facetious, but I’m not. Keaton seems to love that cow, and it’s strangely poignant.

The Stranger’s Return (1933)

It’s remarkable to me that a film like The Stranger’s Return rarely seems to get many plaudits. Lionel Barrymore is a hoot as a cantankerous Iowa farmer, playing what feels like the affectionate archetype for all such roles and welcoming his city-dwelling granddaughter into the fold.

Miriam Hopkins has rarely been so amiable and opposite Franchot Tone, King Vidor develops this profound congeniality of spirit played against these elemental images of rural American life. It’s a collision of two worlds and yet any chafing comes more so from the hardened hearts of relatives than the nature of one’s upbringing. It moved me a great deal even as I consider the different worlds I’ve been blessed to frequent.

If you want to go down other cinematic rabbit holes, I would also recommend Ernst Lubitsch’s The Broken Lullaby with Barrymore. For Miriam Hopkins, you might consider The Story of Temple Drake, and for director King Vidor, I was equally fascinated by the Depression-era saga Our Daily Bread.

The Children Are Watching Us (1944)

Janus Films — The Children Are Watching Us

During the beginning of 2021, I went on a bit of an Italian neorealist odyssey, beginning with some of the less appreciated films of Vittorio De Sica (at least by me). While Bicycle Thieves is a high watermark, even an early film like The Children Are Watching Us shows his innate concern for human beings of all stripes.

This is not a portrait of economic poverty as much as it depicts poverty of relationships and emotion. In what might feel like a predecessor to two British classics in Brief Encounter and Fallen Idol, a young boy’s childhood is fractured by his mother’s infidelity. While his father tries to save their marriage and they gain a brief respite on a family vacation, these attempts at reconciliation are not enough to save their crumbling family unit.

What’s most devastating is how this young boy is left so vulnerable — caught in the middle of warring parents — and stricken with anxiety. In a tumultuous, wartime landscape, it’s no less miraculous De Sica got the movie made. It’s not exactly a portrait of the perfect fascist family. Instead, what it boasts are the pathos and humanity that would color the actor-director’s entire career going forward.

Violent Saturday (1955)

Violent Saturday (1955) | MUBI

Color noir is a kind of personal preoccupation of mine: Inferno, Slightly Scarlet, The Revolt of Mamie Stover, Hell on Frisco Bay, and a Kiss Before Dying all are blessed with another dimension because of their cinematography. Violent Saturday is arguably the most compelling of the lot of them because of how it so fluidly intertwines this microcosm of post-war America with the ugliness of crime.

Richard Fleischer’s film takes ample time to introduce us to the town — its inhabitants — and what is going on behind the scenes. Three men, led by Stephen McNally and Lee Marvin, spearhead a bank robbery plot. But we simultaneously are privy to all the dirty laundry dredged up in a community like this.

These criminals are the obvious villains, and yet we come to understand there’s a moral gradient throughout the entire community. The out-of-towners are not the totality of evil just as the townsfolk aren’t unconditionally saintly. The picture boasts a cast of multitudes including Victor Mature, Richard Egan, Silvia Sidney, Virginia Leith, Tommy Noonan, and Ernest Borgnine. The ending comes with emotional consequence.

Nothing But a Man (1964)

Nothing But a Man was a recent revelation. It was a film that I meant to watch for years — there were always vague notions that it was an early addition to the National Film Registry — and yet one very rarely hears a word about it. The story is rudimentary, about a black man returning to his roots in The South, trying to make a living, and ultimately falling in love.

However, the film also feels like a bit of a time capsule. Although filmed up north, it gives us a stark impression of what life in the Jim Crow South remained for a black man in the 1960s. The March on Washington was only the year before and The Voting Rights Act has little bearing on this man’s day-to-day. The smallest act of defiance against the prevailing white community will easily get him blackballed.

I’ve appreciated Ivan Dixon for his supporting spot on Hogan’s Heroes and his prolific directorial career (Even his brief stints in A Raisin in The Sun, Too Late Blues, and A Patch of Blue). Still, Nothing But a Man, showcases his talents like no other. Likewise, I only just registered Abbey Lincoln as a jazz talent, but I have a new appreciation for her. She exhibits a poise and a genuine concern that lends real weight to their relationship. It’s not simply about drama; it’s the privilege to observe these moments with them — to feel their elation, their pain, and their inalienable yearning for dignity.

Les Choses de la Vie (1970)

Les Choses de la Vie | Institut français du Royaume-Uni

Even in the aftermath of the cultural zeitgeist that exploded out of the French New Wave, the likes of Godard, Truffaut, Rohmer, Chabrol, and Rivette et al. released a steady stream of films. One of the filmmakers you hear a great deal less about — and one who was never associated with this hallowed group — was Claude Sautet.

Still, in his work with the likes of Romy Schneider and Michel Piccoli, he carved out a place worthy of at least some recognition in the annals of French cinema. If one would attempt to describe his work with something like The Things of Life, you could grasp at a term like “melodrama,” but it is never in the fashion of Douglas Sirk. It’s a film of melancholy and a subtler approach to splintering romance.

It somehow takes the motifs of Godard’s Weekend with the constant vicissitude of the continental Two for The Road to alight on its own tale of love nailed down by the performances of Piccoli and Schneider. They are both caught in the kind of fated cycle that bears this lingering sense of tragedy.

Honorable Mentions (in no exact order):

  • Dishonored (1931) Dir. by Josef Von Sternberg
  • Pilgrimage (1933) Dir. by John Ford
  • TIll We Meet Again (1944) Dir. by Frank Borzage
  • Bonjour Tritesse (1958) Dir. by Otto Preminger
  • Scaramouche (1952) Dir. by George Sidney
  • Pale Flower (1964) Dir. by Masahiro Shinoda
  • Courtship of Eddie’s Father (1963) Dir. by Vincente Minnelli
  • Girl With a Suitcase (1961) Dir. by Valerio Zurlini
  • Sergeant Rutledge (1960) Dir. by John Ford
  • Buck and The Preacher (1972) Dir. by Sidney Poitier
  • Cooley High (1975) Dir. by Michael Schultz
  • My Name is Nobody (1973) Dir. by Tonino Valerii