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New Video presents
Nothing But A Man (1964)

"Baby, I feel so free inside."
- Duff Anderson (Ivan Dixon)

Review By: David Krauss  
Published: September 29, 2004

Stars: Ivan Dixon, Abbey Lincoln, Gloria Foster, Julius Harris, Yaphet Kotto
Director: Michael Roemer

MPAA Rating: Not Rated for (frank scenes of racial prejudice, mild domestic violence)
Run Time: 01h:31m:08s
Release Date: September 28, 2004
UPC: 767685946138
Genre: drama


Style
Grade
Substance
Grade
Image Transfer
Grade
Audio Transfer
Grade
Extras
Grade
A AA-B+ A-

DVD Review

Depicting the American black experience in an uncompromising, realistic fashion has never been easy, but in the early 1960s it amounted to a Herculean endeavor. The burgeoning civil rights movement faced intense resistance in the South, and mounting racial tensions created an atmosphere of uncertainty and fear. Yet into this maelstrom walked filmmakers Michael Roemer and Robert M. Young with their eyes wide open. The pair bravely sought to make an important, meaningful film about a taboo subject, and cared little about commercial prospects or personal glory. Both Jews, Roemer and Young experienced firsthand the debilitating effects of oppression and prejudice, and transferred those feelings to their new project. When Nothing But A Man was released in 1964, it barely registered at the box office, but rocked the Venice and New York film festivals, impressing critics with its stark story and documentary feel.

In the 40 years since its premiere, Nothing But A Man has gained additional stature, and New Video marks the anniversary with a special edition DVD that hopefully will reach the large audience the film deserves. Starring Ivan Dixon (best known as Sgt. James "Kinch" Kinchloe on the TV sitcom Hogan's Heroes) and Abbey Lincoln, Nothing But A Man tells a quiet yet powerful tale of one man's efforts to be regarded and accepted as a human being instead of a color. That's a tall order for a southern society trained to systematically strip black men of dignity, but Duff Anderson (Dixon) fights the status quo in his quest to break the chain of abuse.

After he marries Josie Dawson (Lincoln), a preacher's daughter, Duff chucks his steady job as a railroad worker to settle down in Birmingham, Alabama and raise a family. But he refuses to kowtow to his white bosses at the local mill, and soon finds himself unemployed. Unwilling to accept work that compromises his self-respect, Duff becomes increasingly frustrated over the dearth of (equal) opportunity in Birmingham. Feelings of worthlessness and anger overcome him; he begins to resent his schoolteacher wife for shouldering their financial burden, and loses respect for himself as a man. He can't bear the thought of becoming a bitter, disillusioned drunkard like his father or a patronized puppet of white civil leaders like Josie's dad. As societal and self-imposed pressures continue to beat him down, Duff inches ever closer to his breaking point.

Young and Roemer (who also collaborated on the screenplay) paint a bleak and unforgiving world. Hard labor, absent and disinterested fathers, shabby living conditions, and feelings of inferiority predominate. Duff wants desperately to be different than the previous generation of black men who failed him—to be responsible, upstanding, proud—but society diminishes him at every turn. The film's gritty look reflects the obstacles Duff faces, and Roemer's semi-documentary style lends Nothing But A Man a universal resonance, making us feel as if we're watching not just one man's story, but the story of hundreds or thousands of men, all of whom are filled with a wrenching combination of hope and despair.

More a series of vignettes than a linear story, the film puts us in Duff's shoes as he trudges along his difficult path. We feel his indignation, his ire, his helplessness, and search with him for the elusive miracle that will right the wrongs of an ignorant, intolerant society. Part of the film's beauty is that it offers no solutions, not even a rosy horizon on which Duff can hang his dreams. Life will be tough, unpleasant, yet Duff's spirit never breaks; he will continue to fight for a better life, and won't let down those dear to him.

Sparse dialogue makes the actors convey emotion through body language, reaction shots, and telling close-ups. Young, who would later direct such diverse and acclaimed features as Rich Kids, Extremities, Dominick and Eugene, and Caught, uses his lens like a prying eye, and he and Roemer wring natural, realistic performances from a largely inexperienced cast. For those who only know Dixon from Hogan's Heroes, his performance is a revelation. Understated, subdued, yet full of humanity, he expresses just enough emotion so we can sense the turmoil that churns inside him. Lincoln also impresses as the outwardly shy but inwardly strong and independent Josie, who stands by her man but will never accept disrespect. Julius Harris (in his first film role), Gloria Foster, and a young Yaphet Kotto also file memorable portrayals.

Thankfully, our society has progressed since 1964, but Nothing But A Man remains a powerful reminder of the trials African-Americans were forced to endure as they sought equality, acceptance, and a better standard of life. And looking at it 40 years later, we realize how men like Duff, who persevered despite adversity, helped break down barriers and pave the way for future generations. The film's slow pace and lack of plot might turn off some viewers, but its message makes the journey worthwhile.

Rating for Style: A
Rating for Substance: A

 

Image Transfer

 One
Aspect Ratio1.33:1 - Full Frame
Original Aspect Ratioyes
Anamorphicno


Image Transfer Review: New Video has put together a stunning transfer of Nothing But A Man. The nearly spotless source print enjoys marvelous contrast, excellent clarity, and a high level of detail, yet preserves the film's low-budget, independent look. Blacks are rich and solid, while gray levels cover a broad range. Close-ups are especially crisp, with edge enhancement altogether absent. Some shimmering occasionally disrupts the image, but it's a negligible annoyance.

Image Transfer Grade: A-

 

Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
DS 2.0Englishno


Audio Transfer Review: The stereo track possesses good clarity and highlights subtle details, like the crunching of fried chicken and chirping of evening crickets. Unfortunately, the actors mumble quite a bit, which at times makes understanding dialogue difficult, but the Motown soundtrack (featuring tunes by Stevie Wonder, Mary Wells, Martha and the Vandellas, and The Marvelettes, among others) sounds full and clear. Stereo separation is tough to detect, but good fidelity lends the audio presence and depth.

Audio Transfer Grade: B+

 

Disc Extras

Static menu
Scene Access with 12 cues and remote access
Cast and Crew Biographies
Cast and Crew Filmographies
Production Notes
1 Documentaries
4 Featurette(s)
Packaging: generic plastic keepcase
Picture Disc
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: single

Extras Review: Several interesting extras enhance the disc, beginning with The Cast and Crew 40 Years Later, a series of interviews with Ivan Dixon, Julius Harris, and Abbey Lincoln, and a lengthy dialogue between Robert M. Young and Michael Roemer. During his almost five-minute interview, Dixon recalls his audition for the film and talks about the similarities between himself and Duff. He even admits to shoving his own wife to the floor on one occasion (although, unlike Josie, she wasn't pregnant at the time). "I felt like I was reliving my own life on film," the actor says.

Harris discusses his various jobs—boxer, musician, nurse—before the acting bug bit him, and how he auditioned for Nothing But A Man on a dare. The part of Will Anderson "changed my life," he says in the six-minute piece, and the film "opened my eyes." Lincoln gives a scattered, emotional interview, reminiscing about her youth ("I didn't grow up like scum") and her sexy solo number wearing a Marilyn Monroe cast-off gown in The Girl Can't Help It. Always a political activist, Lincoln rambles a bit incoherently about the loss of black ancestors, and ends her five-minute interview tearfully musing, "Where are the African gods?"

Young and Roemer informally converse for a half-hour about all aspects of the film, their prior cinematic work, and their long personal association. They discuss the link between Jews and blacks, the tense racial relations of the time, casting, and how they broke an American movie taboo by filming black people kissing and in close-up. They also remember stuffing Lincoln's afro hairdo into a wig, and arguing with Dixon about shaving off his moustache. Despite its considerable length and sporadic tedium, the interview is informative and enlightening.

A 13-minute excerpt from the upcoming film Portrait of Abbey includes additional (and more lucid) interview footage with the singer-actress, as well as substantial performance clips from several of her jazz recitals. Meaty cast and crew biographies and selected filmographies follow, but probably the finest supplement is a beautifully designed 18-page booklet featuring an in-depth analysis of the film, a history of its production, and several rare photos. Fans of Nothing But A Man and DVD collectors will especially appreciate this first-class insert.

Extras Grade: A-

 

Final Comments

Nothing But A Man may have been overlooked at the time of its original release, but New Video ensures this important film will be preserved for future generations. An unflinching look at a disturbing, turbulent time, the film at last receives its due with a great transfer and absorbing extras.

 


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