Portland, Oregon hosted an inaugural African American Film Festival this past weekend. Founded by Ron Craig – who also coordinates the Astoria International Film Festival – the PDX AAFF movies were divided into four categories: social contemporary (“Carmen Jones,” “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner”); classic films (“Imitation of Life,” “Cabin in the Sky”); progressive films (“Jo Jo Dancer, Your Life is Calling,” “She’s Gotta Have It”) and blaxploitation (“Shaft,” “Superfly,” and “Cleopatra Jones”). I saw two films during the festival — 1964’s incisive “Nothing But a Man” and 1969’s farcical “Putney Swope” — which afforded me a rare opportunity to see works from beyond the fringe which are generally regarded as seminal.
In Michael Roemer’s remarkable “Nothing But a Man,” Ivan Dixon plays Duff Anderson, a railroad worker in a 1960s small Alabama town not far from Birmingham, who grapples with his inner struggle of confronting the barrage of racial prejudice he faces without destroying his own soul. He shares cramped, temporary accommodations with half a dozen of his fellow “section gang” — including Yaphet Kotto in his first film role — in a threadbare bunkhouse. They pass the time playing checkers on a broken-in-two board with bottle caps for pieces. Seemingly older than his mid-20s, Duff is reserved and mostly keeps to himself and Dixon provides the role with a charismatic presence of simmering intensity suggesting pain concealed just below the surface but easily rubbed raw. The film gives him ample instances to excel in a part reportedly first offered to Dixon’s close friend, Sidney Poitier.
One evening, after downing a beer at a working class pool parlor, Duff visits a church where the choir exclaims, “Take My Hand, Precious Lord.” Duff meets Josie, a 26-year-old school teacher who returned to the town after attending college in Birmingham; she’s also the Reverend’s daughter. Blessed with a soft voice and furtive eyes, Abbey Lincoln invests Josie with a resolve which belies her timid demeanor. (Revered to this day as a jazz singer, this was Lincoln’s first film role in a career of just a few scant appearances.) Duff stays for the church supper but not for the service, as he leaves with the trilling of the guest preacher warbling into the street.
On their first date, Duff and Josie visit a lively dance hall. Little Stevie Wonder is blaring on the sound system. (The Motown songs supplement the harmonica soundtrack by Wilbur Kirk throughout the film. And this is an authentic Motown soundtrack. The story of how Roemer discovered the music of the burgeoning record company that he used in this film is found here). Duff is circumspect early in the evening, wondering why Josie is “slumming” with a railroad worker. ”What are you doing with a cat like me in a joint like this?” Duff asks directly. Josie is intrigued by Duff’s bluntness. When they drive to a secluded location to talk further, they are taunted by two white men in their later teens who menacingly lean against the passenger side, calling Duff “boy.” Sitting at the wheel of his borrowed car, Duff challenges the young men to stop their taunts. They recognize Josie as the preacher’s daughter and move on, but not without some last, lewd comments. “They don’t sound human, do they?” Duff asks rhetorically. (The scene vividly encapsulates the hint of violence underpinning these exchanges but more specifically the complete racial contempt and derision the young men feel no compunction to hide.) As they drive afterwards to her home, Josie recalls a lynching eight years before in the town. “My father knew who did it but he didn’t say anything,” she says matter-of-factly, allowing her father’s complicity to speak for itself. Duff, essentially, proposes to Josie at the end of the date.
As a first date, it’s remarkably frank and forthright. The astute script by Robert M. Young (who was also the film’s cinematographer) and Roemer elicits candor without staginess. Characters speak with a stark openness. The conversations – from intense arguments to casual banter – throughout the movie are transfused with insight and illumination; this is a film which does not countenance bullshit. “Nothing But a Man” is about how a black man deals with the indignities of racial prejudice, but it’s perhaps more interested in the internal impact than the external racial confrontations. The story concentrates on how the treatment Duff suffers from translates to his attitude towards his relationships and to himself. As the film adds more scenarios, Duff is challenged to examine and determine his moral fate not just distinctly as a black man but as a man.
Intrigued with each other, a romance begins between Duff and Josie. He reveals that he is an Army veteran, once stationed in Japan, who, after returning, went up North, but found that “it ain’t that good up there, either.” (But as forthright as Duff appears, he still fails to tell Josie until they are quite serious about the 4 year-old son he has from a relationship long ended.) Roemer astutely captures the social distinctions of this small, Southern town when Duff goes to Josie’s house and shakes the hand of the Reverend but when he’s introduced to the white superintendent of schools who calls him “boy”, neither extends a hand. “You’ve got to go easy,” the superintendent reminds the young man. But Duff doesn’t tolerate appeasement without equality. He and the Reverend engage in pointed rows about black acquiescence. The Reverend, who remains silent as murderers walk free, dislikes Duff doubly: for his views but, perhaps more importantly, his vocation. Not overly political, Duff is addressing the topic of how a black man in 1960s America should be treated as a fundamental question of existence. For Duff, it’s a matter of human rights, not just civil rights.
When Duff ventures to Birmingham, a series of sad, unsettling scenes marks his return. He visits his son in a derelict apartment. The child’s mother has abandoned him with an unconcerned babysitter, but, at that moment, all Duff does is drop some bills on a table so the babysitter can care for the toddler. During the same trip, Duff seeks out his dad, Will, (Julius Harris in the first film role of a lengthy career) a despicable, angry alcoholic. Duff is not there to confront his father but simply to observe. Roemer crafts a strong scene at a local bar as Duff and his dad’s girlfriend, Lee (Gloria Foster, the acclaimed stage actress who played The Oracle in “The Matrix.”), dance closely to Martha and the Vandellas’ “Heatwave,” under Will’s watchful eye. There’s a palpable edginess to this moment. It’s not a sexual tension between Duff and Lee, but a connection more like a kinship with both of them suffering from such a tortured, hostile man.
Once Duff and Josie marry, he quits the railroad for a clocking-in job. This brings him closer to the racism, white compliance and black capitulation he so despises. After he tells his plant co-workers at lunch that they should stick together, he’s ratted out and fired. He takes a job at a gas station where almost every tank is overflowing with the open hostility of customers. But even sympathy can feel emasculating to Duff. “I don’t like to be mothered,” he spits out when Josie tries to comfort him after he loses another job. You hope he doesn’t inherit his father’s ability to wallow in anger. Will he allow the degradation imposed on him by others to rupture his goodness? As he is wracked with an inner life in turmoil, it makes you ponder, “Which cheek do you turn when both have been slapped?” It is in those moments that one wonders if they have the strength and resolve to be defiant against the dehumanization without gnashed teeth and clenched fists.
Unfortunately, “Nothing But a Man” was not a watershed moment for many of the principals. The following year, Dixon would begin a five-year stint on “Hogan’s Heroes” as Sergeant James Kinchkoe, the bilingual communications specialist, before becoming a busy TV director. Young has worked infrequently as a writer, cinematographer and director. Roemer would direct “The Plot Against Harry” in 1969 and then embark on a career in academia at Yale University, where he still teaches film studies.
It’s patronizing at times to suggest that it’s important to see a movie for its historical significance because it tends to imply that the film has very little merit otherwise. But the historical importance of “Nothing But a Man” is simply only one of a number of compelling reasons the film is laudable. Audiences in 1964 should have seen this movie for its unblinkered storytelling and truthful approach to complex relationships; in the subsequent forty-five years it has lost none of its relevance and resonance for contemporary viewers. Profound and personal, it is one of the most sincere American films of this or any year.
An unapologetic and cavalier satire, Robert Downey Sr.’s “Putney Swope” isn’t subtle. After haranguing the executive board of his underperforming New York City ad agency, the cantankerous owner topples over dead onto the massive wooden board-room table. As the lifeless body lies on the table like a stiff on a mortuary slab, his successor is tallied from scraps of paper pulled out of the dead man’s hat. Due to infighting on the board, they unexpectedly choose the only black member of the executive board, Putney Swope, the agency’s musical director. Gravelly voiced, Putney (Arnold Johnson) fires almost everyone immediately. “Rocking the boat is a drag,” he insists. “You sink it.” He re-names the agency Truth and Soul. Putney is a contradictory boss — he bans accounts for companies making war toys yet his assistant openly totes a gun.
The commercials created by his new firm are artistic, convincing and even entrancing—and highly successful for the reconfigured business. In stark contrast to the black and white of the film, the ads are filmed in soothing color: A trippy, space themed spot for Lucky Airlines showcases slow-motion cavorting; a romantic, interracial couple tenderly sing a hilarious tune for the pimple remover, Faceoff; a breakfast food called Ethereal Cereal is sold with in-your-face efficacy; and a lone dancer in a smoke-filled alleyway performs a funky, undulating dance for Fan-A-Way. “You can’t eat an air conditioner,” coos the sultry model.
Downey dresses Swope in an evolving set of outfits, from his original business suit to sporting a beret with black mock turtleneck, to finally parading around the office in a Fidel Castro-like get-up. But this revolutionary angle isn’t examined too closely. (The hallways are bursting with groupies and supplicants; the abiding philosophy appears to be “Puff, Puff, Pass.”) The film falters because Johnson is not a compelling presence. Purportedly, Downey dubbed all of Johnson’s dialogue because the actor either forgot his lines, or simply mangled them. (The irony of a film about an all-white ad agency taken over by a black man, who then is dubbed by a white man can be construed as something more than just a side note.)
Beleaguered by its protagonist’s performance, “Putney Swope” has no cohesive vision. Executives line up to curry favor with Swope but corporate greed seems an all-too-obvious target. As the office becomes more chaotic and anarchic (which is quite a different thing than revolutionary) and Putney becomes more dictatorial, a subplot involving an imaginary United States president only serves as a distraction. “Putney Swope” is a concept in search of a payoff. It’s a mere 84 minutes but still feels long. In the end, the millions he’s made are sabotaged. As Putney’s pyre burns, you wonder if he shouldn’t have been tearing the roof off the sucker.