The Struggles of an Embrace: Moods and Racial Blackness in Nothing but a Man (1964),
A lot of people are talking about the recent Academy Award nomination and if the Oscars are truly color blind. I choose not to get involved in that debate. However, when reading an article the last week about one particular opinion, I began to think about great actors, but the truly great contributions by Black filmmakers. As a fan of both Blaxploitation and Black cinema, I can really appreciate these contributions. For the initiated, these two terms, Blaxploitation and Black cinema, are not one and the same. Blaxploitation films are Black action films aimed toward Black audiences, featuring anti-establishment plots with some stereotypical characters and violence. Black cinema refers to the films that were beginning to be made in the early 1960s by Black filmmakers wishing to buck the traditional Hollywood system and make films that they felt were more representative of the Black community. Unlike Blaxploitation, these films did not promote stereotypes and instead addressed relevant issues such as the Civil Rights Movement. Innovative and creative filmmakers were out to make a statement with these films. Though many films were made earlier, the genre can be said to have gained momentum by the release of Melvin Van Peebles’ groundbreaking work, Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song (1971).
One of my favorites is a 1964 film, Nothing but a Man, directed by Michael Roemer. This film is unique in that Roemer is not Black. Roemer fled to the United States from Nazi Germany as a child in 1939. As a Jewish family living in the South, his family was treated harshly by other whites and was often threatened. He completed school and eventually became a professor at Yale University and a film director. As such, he traveled throughout the South getting to know as many Black families as he could, trying to relate to their reality of existence in a white conservative environment. His 1964 Civil Rights-era independent film, Nothing but a Man, sheds light on the relationship between racial pride and the one man’s struggle for independence. To star in the film he turned to Ivan Dixon, most famous for his role in the 1960s comedy, Hogan’s Heroes, and jazz great, Abbey Lincoln. The film is about a Black male, Duff Anderson (Ivan Dixon), a lighthearted railroad hand working in the South. He abandons his hard-working but easy-living lifestyle to marry the daughter of a Baptist minister, Josie (Abbey Lincoln). The pair attempt to settle down in a small community near Birmingham, Alabama. They are eager to break free from the mold set by their parents. Duff is brash and independent and his attitude often leads to confrontations with his white bosses. Though he never responds with violence, he is intelligent and resolute in his fight for equality and to maintain dignity and respect.
This film tosses the traditional Hollywood narrative on its end and depicts the reality of Black urban life; a reality resulting in white spectators having to confront what many minority families at the time had to deal with on an everyday basis. Many white audiences were resistant to accept the truth that was unfolding on screen; a working Black male struggling to survive with dignity, while constantly encountering degradation and condescension at the hands of the white community.
When watching this film, what permeates our memory is the mood of the film, or the affective character of the mise-en-scene that allows us to have a unique understanding of what we have viewed; the setting, the sounds, the framing, and the narrative, all unfolding in this film working to create a feeling of isolation and frustration. In a 2012 article in the film journal Screen, scholar Robert Sinnerbrink, when referring to these expressive aspects of film, cited classic film historians Lotte H. Eisner and Béla Balázs in utilizing the term Stimmung. Stimmung is a German expression which refers to a profounder understanding of what we would call a film’s mood. In Nothing but a Man, Stimmung is stimulated by the film’s use of closed framing and isolating close-up shots. The end result wraps the narrative within an affective veil that is consistent with the film’s mood. As Sinnerbrink would put it, Stimmung embraces the harmony that is created between the expressiveness of a film and the affective receptiveness of the spectator. Or, as Balazs would say, Stimmung is, “the air and aroma that pervade every work of art, and that lend distinctiveness to a medium and a world.” The affective character of Nothing but a Man depicts racial blackness as being one of resistance and struggle. This type of affect helps to evoke the cinematic moods of isolation, determination, and independence. Resistance and opposition are central themes to racial blackness and the theory of the resistant spectator.
“Black Spectatorship: Problems of Identification and Resistance.” Film Theory & Criticism (2009)
In his essay, “Black Spectatorship: Problems of Identification and Resistance,” which appeared in the book, Film Theory & Criticism, cultural scholar Manthia Diawara promotes the theory of the resistant spectator. This theory posits that some Black Americans cannot identify with Hollywood’s representation of Black characters. Additionally, white spectators sometimes struggle with these same racial depictions on film; finding them outside of their experience. In Nothing by a Man, the filmmakers desire for realism in their depiction of Black American characters makes some traditional white audiences uneasy. Diawara points out that the traditional Hollywood narrative depicts Black male characters as playing by the rules of white society. These same Black male characters ultimately lose when they attempt to circumvent these rules. In this way, Black spectators, an interchangeable term with resistant spectators, are denied the possibility of identification with these characters in any real credible way. This directly leads to the production of independent black films, such as 1964’s Nothing but a Man. This is where, as Diawara puts it, “a ‘cinema of the real’ in which there is no manipulation of the look to bring the spectator to a passive state of uncritical identification. The films show a world which does not position the spectator for cathartic purposes, but one which constructs a critical position for him or her in relation to the ‘real’ and its representation.” These films may not be fun to watch but they represent a closer view of reality than anything seen before in a traditional Hollywood film.
To this end, the filmmaker is asking the spectator to put race aside and identify with the film’s protagonist. How would they feel if they were in his or her place, regardless of race? Do the white viewers instead identify with the overt racists depicted in the film? Or, perhaps, like Black viewers previously had to contend with, do now white audiences have to think about resisting this racist identification too? White spectators were now confronted with this dualistic presentation of White America; White wasn’t actually always right. These spectators now had to deal with the choice to suspend disbelief and identify with what they are seeing on-screen, or be resistant, much as they had been asking African Americans to do previously.
One particular scene in Nothing but a Man that depicts most vividly the Black cinematic world expressed by the prevailing mood is in the final scene of the final sequence of the film. Feeling dejected by the world around him, unemployed and unable to provide for his family, Duff has left his wife to embark on a journey of self-reflection. After being there for the death of his father, Duff is determined to persevere and not become like his stereotypical alcoholic absentee father. He picks up his young son from the woman who has been raising him and drives back home to reunite with his estranged wife, Josie. He knows life won’t be easy, but he is unwavering in his drive to provide for his family and to do it with hard work and dignity. The final scene begins in the morning, after a long overnight drive, as they arrive at Duff’s home. There are a total of six shots, connected by a series of straight cuts. The scene is comprised of a succession of pans and tracking shots showing Duff lay his sleeping son on the couch and Josie entering the room. A series of close-up shots show Duff and Josie embrace as she begins to cry. The shot then fades to black.
Regarding the narrative, this scene relates Duff’s renewed determination and his love for his family. Duff speaks lightly, “It ain’t gonna be easy, baby, but it’s going to be alright.” The two are locked in a tight embrace, as Josie continues to cry. Duff then whispers in her ear, “Baby, I feel so free inside.” The scene also shares the strength that can be drawn from family unity. Duff knows that the road to independence and equality are going to be long and tough, but together they can achieve their dreams.
The cinematic world depicted is the small home Duff shares with his wife, Josie, and now his young son, as well. This is the home that will have to be Duff’s foundation, his stronghold against the indignation of the surrounding world; the safe place for him to try to relax, recuperate, and reinvigorate himself for the struggles to come. We are shown the small, rustic living area, modestly decorated but full of love. Though Duff’s son has never been there before the scene shows he is thought of often as numerous drawings by him adorn the wall above the sofa he lays upon. When Josie sees him for the first time, she is not shocked or angry that he is there; she looks down upon him and smiles; he is family and he is loved.
The first mood conveyed is one of isolation and intimacy. The cinematographer uses closed framing and close-up shots in the scene working to strongly convey a feeling of closeness, privacy, and tenderness. This also works to evoke sympathy for Duff and Josie and the everyday racial conflict they must endure. With most Black neighbors in the community simply trying to survive with as little hassle as possible, racial indignation and discrimination is tolerated. None of Duff’s friends and former co-workers has the fortitude to stand up against how they are treated, or at least none would do it without using violence from which Duff has refrained. He knows that it will be him and his family alone against an ignorant and close-minded community.
The second mood communicated is of determination. The close-up camera shots are an integral part of the mise-en-scene of this scene as they allow the viewer to really take note of the facial expressions of the characters. These expressions elicit the somber yet determined mood of the characters and of the scene. Josie smiles down at Duff’s son but almost immediately starts crying when she sees her just-returned husband as he enters the room. She knows the struggle is real and that Duff will always be strong-minded and independent. She has to make their home one of warmth and love, despite whatever troubles might be outside. Duff’s facial expression, shown in close-up, as he is embraced by Josie, is one of quiet determination. He is aware of the hard times ahead and that they can only make it if they stick together and push through whatever troubles fall upon them. They must be there for each other.
This scene brings together Diawara’s concepts of racial blackness as they are aligned with the cinematic mood of the film. These realizations of opposition, struggle, and resistance, all components of racial blackness, are embodied in the scene’s mood as emblematic of the film as a whole.
Unlike Blaxploitation, Black cinema is more about mood. This is true for all the “dark” film genres: Black cinema, Film Noir, German expressionism. The cinematic mood evoked by such Black films as Nothing but a Man is different, however, from the other “dark” genres. The setting, sounds, shading, and narrative, of noir or expressionistic films unfold to suggest chaos or uncertainty; disorder hiding just under the surface. With “Black cinematic mood” this is not so; closed framing and close-up shots with lighting more evocative of documentary filmmaking work to suggest moods of struggle and resistance, always indicative of a feeling of opposition. Black cinema can be seen as a struggle to bring order to a world of disorder; a world of racial bias and stereotypes; a world in need of equality. Nothing but a Man works to do just that.