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Blu-Ray : Recommended
Ranking:
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Release Date: February 20th, 2024 Movie Release Year: 1964

Nothing But a Man - The Criterion Collection

Overview -

Blu-ray Review By: Jesse Skeen
1964's Nothing But a Man is a simple but effective film portraying ordinary characters during the height of the civil rights movement. Criterion delivers its usual archival-quality transfer with some recent insight from the director and cast as supplements. Recommended.

OVERALL:
Recommended
Rating Breakdown
STORY
VIDEO
AUDIO
SPECIAL FEATURES
Tech Specs & Release Details
Technical Specs:
Director Approved Special Edition
Video Resolution/Codec:
1080p/AVC MPEG-4
Length:
91
Aspect Ratio(s):
1.37:1
Audio Formats:
PCM 1.0
Subtitles/Captions:
English (SDH)
Special Features:
An Introduction to Michael Roemer, a new interview program featuring Roemer, Conversation from 2004 between Roemer and coproducer and cinematographer Robert M. Young, Program featuring archival interviews with actors Ivan Dixon, Abbey Lincoln, and Julius Harris
Release Date:
February 20th, 2024

Storyline: Our Reviewer's Take

Ranking:

Ivan Dixon is nothing but the title "Man" of this film, a railroad worker named Duff who moves through the American South maintaining the tracks. While in a small town outside Birmingham, he is drawn to a church service and a picnic afterwards, meeting Josie (singer Abbey Lincoln, who was married then to jazz legend Max Roach) who happens to be the daughter of the preacher (Stanley Greene) and also a teacher at a segregated school. The two of them go on a few dates; the preacher disapproves of the relationship but Josie asserts her independence and the two eventually marry.

This forces Duff to make some changes in his life, mainly switching to a job that will keep him at home. He finds a blue-collar job that allows that but is let go after attempting to unionize the workers. Finding work after that proves difficult due to the fast reputation he made as well as the racist attitudes of the area. This takes an emotional toll as he seems to view his self-worth by his employment status and income. Duff also has a four-year-old son being taken care of in Birmingham by a nanny after the mother left town; the backstory on this isn't made clear but it seems something he would mostly rather forget about.

While set in Alabama the film was actually shot in New Jersey (said to be due to Alabama not being the safest place at the time to make a movie about race relations), but otherwise, the styles of filmmaking and acting are authentic, almost documentary-like - not too surprisingly as director Michael Roemer made more documentaries than narrative films. There is no music score although several popular songs of the era licensed from Motown are heard in the background, and the shots don't hit the viewer in the face attempting to make anything look larger or more "symbolic" than they actually are. The dialogue is delivered casually as well, and even the more heavy-handed moments don't seem overdone. Ivan Dixon performed a number of dramatic and comedic roles in his career, here he acts perfectly naturally as an ordinary person who just wants to make something of himself- nothing but a man as the title says.

The racial elements are of course unfortunate (particularly when Duff is harassed while working at a gas station, which was already a last-resort position for him after being passed over at other places) but not done in a way to be overly dramatic or preachy; they more simply just represent how the era was which thankfully has changed in the decades since. While racial issues are a main theme of this film, many of the main character's situations can be identified with by those of any race, I've personally had a big "gotta pick myself up" moment in life where I made a bigger effort to land a better career only to be just moderately successful at it. The desire for respectable employment is clearly one of Duff's highest priorities, and the difficulty of obtaining that a huge frustration. A point even comes where his wife has to try to convince him that a job shouldn't define who he is.

I did feel like the story should have handled his post-marriage job a bit differently though. While he is soon fired after talking about unionizing the workers and becomes almost "blacklisted" in town, I had to wonder how things might have turned out if he had just laid low on that instead. Not a lot of screen time was given to that element and he at least might have been able to hold onto his employment if he had kept the "don't make waves" philosophy in mind. Keep an eye out for Yaphet Kotto in his first screen appearance as one of Duff's railroad co-workers (he isn't given much to do here unfortunately), as well as early appearances by Esther Rolle of TV's "Good Times" and Gloria Foster who was best known as The Oracle in the first two Matrix films.

Vital Disc Stats: The Blu-Ray
Criterion's single-disc release is packaged in its usual clear thick case, with a still from the movie on the opposite side of the cover inlay. A fold-out insert includes a cast and crew listing as well as an essay by Gene Seymour analyzing the story, cast and director.

Video Review

Ranking:

Criterion's transfer is archival quality, transferred in 4K from the original camera negative which shows no signs of wear or damage. While a true 4K disc would have been nice, this Blu-Ray does not show any apparent lack of detail. The black and white image (which fits the setting well, not many scenes call for color) is very sharp and well-focus throughout, allowing us to read all of the signs and labels in the background- for example flyers posted in bars and a box of cigarettes on an end tape are thoroughly readable. While the settings and locations are drab for the most part, this transfer makes them look as clean as humanly possible.

Audio Review

Ranking:

The mono audio (remastered from the original soundtrack negative) is encoded in 1-channel PCM, but most equipment will output this as a 2-channel signal that must be center-channel decoded. The quality is adequate but not spectacular; sound simply was not a very high priority on all movies at this time especially the smaller productions. Dialogue is at least clear for the most part, but overall audio quality is a bit on the "dirty" side with some minor noise and distortion in some places.

Special Features

Ranking:

Criterion's extras run about an hour and include the following:

  • An Introduction to Michael Roemer (HD, 25 Mins.) - German director Roemer discusses his career and focuses on Nothing But a Man replaying and discussing some scenes with added context. This may have been all he wanted to discuss rather than recording an audio commentary.
  • Michael Roemer and Robert M. Young in Conversation (22 Mins.) - Shot on video in 2004, director Roemer and cinematographer Young further discuss the production of Nothing But a Man.
  • Meet the Actors of Nothing But a Man (HD, 13 Mins.) - Ivan Dixon (Duff), Abbey Lincoln (Josie) and Julius Harris (Duff's estranged father Will) talk about how they were approached for the movie and its production

Final Thoughts

You can hardly go wrong with any Criterion release; the accurately-titled Nothing But a Man is a more minor but worthy addition to their collection with a first-rate presentation and some recent insights from the director and cast. The story remains relevant today in terms of people of any race trying to make an honest living in America and ultimately maintain their integrity. An audio commentary explaning more of the historical elements and pointing out the early appearance of some later well-known actors in bit parts would have enhanced the release, but undoubtedly a Recommended title.