There's no more poll tax, LBJ called race an "irrelevant difference" when he talked to us about the Civil Rights Act--and just last month three civil rights workers were murdered in Mississippi. These aren't "milestones" or "tragedies"--or at least, that's not all they are. They are "things that happened"--and they happened to real people--whom history is already claiming, turning into plaques and headstones and true/false questions on somebody's kid's test. But I don't want to forget they are real the way getting up in the morning is real, something we do.
Nothing But a Man helps me remember this. Duff works on a road gang, wants to settle down, marries a preacher's daughter, all but falls apart. And how easy it would be to turn him into a case study, a sad reminder of our troubled times--of a troubled race. But the movie refuses to give in to history. Instead, it quiets everything down and lets us see Duff's face--serious and watchful, hiding the fear he can't be a good man--seeing the evidence in his own father, and the way he treats his own son--then his wife. Ivan Dixon as Duff seems almost gentle--but he surrenders--again, not to the proper role of the Negro in America, but to his own fears--shook free as rage, like a wet dog pelting everyone.
--But he is not a dog, and not a Type. His wife Josie--played by Abbey Lincoln with so much restraint I worried she would never be able to breathe deeply--keeps at him with her love, even when he hits her, even when he fails. And it is not sacrifice--let alone the sorry spectacle of a stupid woman trapped by a stupid man--but something else: survival in the face of that need to get up every morning and find a reason to believe. If the movie approaches any "historical truth," it is that, the essential grease on the big wheel, the willingness to sit up, plant your feet on the floor, and stand.