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“Can’t live without trouble, can you?”
As unspeakable images of racist violence circulate worldwide, white friends and acquaintances have reached out to ask what they can do. Beyond protesting, donating and voting, I recommend visiting a timeless and timely film released 56 years ago.
“Can’t live without trouble, can you?” asks Duff, the hero of Nothing But a Man, early on in writer-director-producer Michael Roemer’s 95-minute marvel, co-written by and produced with Robert M. Young, who also served as cinematographer.
Maintaining your dignity and a dollar can be a Herculean task in any day and age. Duff tries to do it under Jim Crow. Old-fashioned and progressive, humble and brash, downcast yet determined, Duff, with his considerable integrity and contradictions, is up to the task with no alternative in sight throughout this indelible film.
Like “Black lives matter,” “I am a man” and “ain’t I a woman,” the words “nothing but a man” are a plea for racial justice that highlights dehumanization with immediacy. The undeniable fact that Duff’s hopes, fears, love and mere existence are as valid as those of any other human is denied incessantly, no matter what he does. Time and time again, methodical disenfranchisement does its best to dismantle Duff — the linchpin keeping his family unit together — as it has countless men like him.
Between shards of dialogue, the specter of intergenerational oppression fills every void. Late in its proceedings, Nothing But a Man — so of and ahead of its time — even features a confused, conflicted “Karen” with a Y chromosome, if you will. Despite his brief screen time, even that character’s complexity resonates empathetically.
Later on, another character stops breathing for the same broader reason that Mr. Garner, Mr. Floyd, Mr. Ellis and untold others have in unceremonious public lynchings. I suspect that Michael Roemer crafted this landmark glimpse of American genocide in part because he had seen another one up close in Germany.
You may not possess the interracial empathy of Roemer and Young, the white men behind the camera on Nothing But a Man. I may not either, but it’s something to which we can all aspire. If that lands us in a place where people stop murdering, torturing, obstructing, exploiting, marginalizing and excluding others, it’s a good start.
* * *
For Ahmaud Arbery, Christian Cooper, Manuel Ellis, George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and countless others in our quadricentennial struggle. I would also like to thank the cinematic and cultural juggernaut known as Spike Lee for introducing me to this film, on film, so long ago.
Geoffrey Fletcher is a New York-based filmmaker best known for his adaptation of Precious, for which, in 2010, he became the first Black screenwriter ever awarded an Oscar.
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