Nothing but a Man: How Can a White Director Understand Black Anger?
At the opening of the album Town Hall Concert: Music Played on European Tour '64, jazz bassist Charles Mingus makes this statement: "The next composition was written when Eric Dolphy explained to me that [in the South] there was something similar to the concentration camps once in Germany... and the only difference between the electric barbed wire is that they don't have gas chambers and hot stoves to cook us in yet. And so I wrote a piece called 'Meditations,' as to how to get some wire cutters before someone gets some guns to us." The year Mingus said this to a European audience, 1964, Nothing but a Man—a movie that's set in the South and concerns a young black man dealing with racial oppression on several levels (directly, indirectly, and historically)—was released.
The strange thing about this film is that the anger it expresses, which is not hysterical or explosive, feels very real. The reason this is strange is because the story was written and directed by a white man, Michael Roemer. Now, it's not hard to imagine a white director understanding the black American situation from a legal or political point of view, but Roemer was able to get down to the kinds of feelings that can only be derived from experience. How was this possible? Was it the actors? Ivan Dixon (famous for playing the black guy in Hogan's Heroes), Abbey Lincoln (the great jazz singer), and Yaphet Kotto (the Alien star was actually handsome when he was young) all do a great job, but it is clear that they are being directed, that they are not playing themselves but characters imagined by Roemer.
Maybe it was an accident of history? Everything just happened to come together? No, the answer is this: The director was a Jew born in Germany in the years leading to the rise of Hitler. Before he fled the country in the late 1930s, he saw his family stripped of its dignity and reduced to bare existence. The anger that's expressed in Nothing but a Man is real, but it's imported from another world and time of trouble. In the way Mingus was able to connect with the persecution of Jews in Nazi Germany, Roemer was able to connect with the persecution of blacks in the Deep South. Northwest Film Forum, Feb 22–28.