Now something of a social-issues-film landmark, after its rediscovery in the early '90s, Michael Roemer's modest, eloquent, New Wave-y micro-movie — made independently in 1964 — is essential viewing for its matter-of-fact look at an average black man's struggle for dignity in the Deep South in the early '60s. Shot and portrayed with the same restraint that its protagonist (Ivan Dixon) uses when confronting Alabama crackers, Roemer's film is an understated heartbreaker whose age and authentic period tang make it resonate like a piece of history. Dixon's Duff Anderson is a nomadic, pensive railroad worker with a rebel's introverted glower — until, that is, he meets the local preacher's daughter, played with a wry smile and dazzling gentleness by jazz diva Abbey Lincoln, and decides to break the mold, marry, and begin a family.
After giving up his relatively well-paying railroad job, Duff gets work at the local sawmill, and when he doesn't play ball with the ubiquitous rubes — the racist underpinnings of nearly every line, every situation, are superbly, frustratingly subtle — his problems begin. Roemer tackles his big-boned subject on the most intimate of terms; Nothing but a Man thrives when its actors are in close quarters, making the inexorable descent into family-decimating rage and desperation all the more personal and affecting. Working with Robert M. Young, the film's cinematographer, co-writer, and co-producer — a team of incorruptible white-boy '60s liberals working at a time when virtually no African Americans were directing films in America, outside of William Greaves and Gordon Parks, who had begun making documentary shorts — Roemer had little more than his wits and good intentions to work with, and that DIY attitude makes the movie reverberate like a blues chord.