The independently made 1964 film Nothing But a Man is one of a handful of films whose production coincided with the civil rights insurgency and benefited from input from activists. Commonly listed in 1970s surveys of black film, the film lacks sustained critical attention in film studies or in-depth historical analysis given its significance as a landmark text of the 1960s. Documentary-like, but not a documentary, it offers a complex representation of black life, but it was scripted, directed, and filmed by two white men, Michael Roemer and Robert Young.
This essay argues that the film’s unusual attention to labor and gender politics as key elements both of racial subordination and liberation resulted from an unusual and productive, though not egalitarian, collaboration across racial lines. The white and Jewish filmmakers recognized that the black freedom struggle in the U.S. South, one of “the most dramatic changes happening in America,” intersected with World War II–era mobilizations against fascism and postwar challenges to colonialism around the world. The filmmakers viewed black struggles for justice, dignity, and self-respect as integral to achieving a just society for everyone, which shaped how they conceived the social and familial effects of racialization and the cultural dynamics of white supremacy. Centering their film story on the struggles of a black couple drew on progressive strategies from the 1940s and 1950s to represent broadened democratic citizenship rights. Roemer and Young also had unusual access to the political debates of black activists because of Young’s recent work filming television documentaries in Nashville and in Angola. Thus, Nothing But a Man offers a rare glimpse into shifting relations between race and labor and between political economy and gender at their formative stages.
Smith, Judith E., "Civil Rights, Labor, and Sexual Politics on Screen in Nothing But a Man (1964)" (2012). American Studies Faculty Publication Series. 3.
Black Camera, Indiana University Press