Nothing But A Man Revisits Abbey Lincoln’s Rising Stardom
Nothing But A Man was perhaps the first film to treat racism as a universal problem. It broke new ground on all levels when it was first released in 1964, making both writer/director Michael Roemer and co-writer/producer Robert Young pioneers of the cinéma vérité movement, which produced films that felt more like documentaries. It was also one of the first films to take a predominately black cast — one that included the late actor Ivan Dixon (as Duff Anderson) and the late jazz vocalist Abbey Lincoln (as Josie, in her first-ever film role) — and highlight not only the complex layers of each character, but ultimately the actors themselves. With a newly restored 35-mm print now available from the Library of Congress, Nothing But A Man will remain as a lasting document for the then-burgeoning civil rights movement.
DownBeat had the pleasure to sit down with Roemer after a recent screening of Nothing But A Man (during its Nov. 9–15 run at Film Forum in New York) to discuss his working relationship with his all-star cast.
How did Ivan Dixon and Abbey Lincoln come on board? What qualities did both Dixon and Lincoln have that could bring out the roles of “Duff” and “Josie,” respectively?
When you look at the script for Nothing But A Man, there is nothing there in the role of “Josie,” there’s no person there. It’s only because of Abbey. “Duff” is written, but Abbey’s role wasn’t written; it’s just sketched there. What you’re seeing is Abbey Lincoln, who gave life and body to this piece of nothing that I mostly wrote. She’s sort of the idealized version of my then-young wife. We had a very nice guy [Charles Gordone] who wrote a play called No Place To Be Somebody. He was African-American, and he liked the script and helped us cast it.
We took casting out to the West Coast because we couldn’t find what we were looking for, and [Gordone] called and said, “I think you should look at Ivan.” So we did. And as soon as he walked in, we said he’s right, physically. He has a very low-key, assured quality, and you just immediately felt comfortable in his presence. Then he brought in Abbey and we said, “Gee, let’s do a screen test with them.” So in walked Abbey and Ivan, and as soon as they were together and reading together, we knew that we were in. We knew they were awfully beautiful people, and it used to bother me a little bit that they were so beautiful. They were both so easy to work with, and I used to think that directing was rather easy because they were so good. I used to do two takes with Ivan—I mean you didn’t need to do three takes. Abbey was not an actor. She was a singer, so she sometimes had a little difficulty, and sometimes we would postpone a scene because there were some issues that she had that didn’t allow her to do the scene, but in the end she always came through. She and I stayed very good friends. I’m sure that I would have had the same relationship with Ivan if he hadn’t been on the West Coast. Abbey was very modest. So was Ivan. They didn’t see themselves as stars. They knew that they were good at something and that they had lent themselves to something bigger than themselves. I don’t mean our movie, but the whole African-American experience. They both liked the film through the very end. Ivan has always said that he was so glad to have done it, and Abbey felt the same way.
Did you ever imagine that Abbey Lincoln’s acting career would be short-lived after the few film roles she took on after Nothing But A Man?
I can’t say that I gave a lot of thought to what would happen to Abbey. Of course, I knew that she had gotten other acting parts and I saw what she was in. I was in touch with her increasingly as the years went by rather than immediately. I did get along very well with Max Roach. He and I just hit it off, and he was down in South Jersey (where much of the film was shot) every weekend. He liked what we were doing. I knew what Abbey had done, and she was known as a black nationalist at the time, which Max had a lot of to do with. I like jazz the way white college boys like jazz [laughs] It took me a long time to see the transformation of classic jazz into [what it is] today. I was always slow, and I didn’t get what everybody else did. But I got Max, and I could see what he was doing. I would go to hear [Abbey] in clubs, and there was another wonderful singer named Betty Carter. She was terrific. She and Abbey appeared together. I knew that Abbey could play the part, or could act, because singing and acting are so close. Abbey was just so great. She was an extraordinary human being right up through the end. I didn’t see her when she was in a nursing home [before she passed away in August 2010 at age 80]. It’s one of the privileges of this profession that you meet a lot of really great people.
As your film set a precedent for black cinema tackling sociopolitical issues, you teamed up with a then-new label known as Motown Records, which provided much of the film’s score. How did this partnership come about?
There was a great record by Booker T & the MG’s called “Green Onions.” I remembered that accurately. I loved that. But we weren’t thinking about music. And then we were editing the film. The editor and I would spend 12 hours a day for weeks and weeks because neither one of us had ever cut a feature film. And we were finding our way through a lot of footage. So I broke off for lunch. I went around the corner, two blocks up, onto 57th Street, and I ran into a friend of mine from college who’s a lawyer. He was always interested in the entertainment industry. He asked me what I was doing, and I told him. He said, “Come up to my office and I’ll give you something.” So I went up to his office and he said, “I’ve just become the counsel for a small record company in Detroit.” He gave me a stack of 45s. I went home and put on those 45s and I just loved that music right away. Bob sort of deferred to me with stuff like that and he said, “Great, let’s use it!” It made it into the film.
Then we had this screening of the rough cut, and there were all of these industry people who said you can’t use that music. We were so naďve or inexperienced and scared. I then thought I’d better get an original score. A friend of mine, who was a composer and musician, saw the film, and he must’ve been at the same screening. He said, “Don’t listen to that. That music is good!” Between his strong feeling and mine, I reused it. We had a deal with Berry Gordy—I never talked to Gordy himself—through his counsel, my friend George Schiffer, where they got a $5,000 investment in our budget. And they owned the performance rights; they didn’t just own the music. So we didn’t have to deal with anyone but Motown. They put out a very nice long-playing record, and when the film was reissued [in 1993] they put out a CD, a nice one with liner notes by a guy out of the University of St. Louis. We didn’t take it out, and that’s as much credit as we can get for that. We had all these marvelous songs, and they give a kind of quality to the film.
—Shannon J. Effinger