The Politics & Poetics of Black Film: Nothing but a Man

The Politics & Poetics of Black Film: Nothing but a Man

The Politics & Poetics of Black Film: Nothing but a Man

The Politics & Poetics of Black Film: Nothing but a Man

Synopsis

Written and directed by two white men and performed by an all-black cast, Nothing But a Man (Michael Roemer, 1964) tells the story of a drifter turned family man who struggles with the pressures of small-town life and the limitations placed on him and his community in the Deep South, an area long fraught with racism. Though unmistakably about race and civil rights, the film makes no direct reference to the civil rights movement. Despite this intentional absence, contemporary audiences were acutely aware of the social context for the film's indictment of white prejudice in America. To help frame and situate the film in the context of black film studies, the book gathers primary and secondary resources, including the original screenplay, essays on the film, statements by the filmmakers, and interviews with Robert M. Young, the film's producer and cinematographer, and Khalil Gibran Muhammad, the Director of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture.

Excerpt

The question of what precisely constitutes black film is a vexing one. Even the way the question is worded can affect how we might frame our considerations and come to our conclusions. “What is black film?” is, after all, a very different question to “what is a black film?” in considering this critically important issue, it might seem odd to turn to the work of two white filmmakers but, in many ways, a “black film” made by whites serves as a peculiarly productive point of departure. in view of that, this volume concentrates on a classic of American independent cinema, Michael Roemer and Robert Young’s Nothing But a Man (1964). It is an extraordinary film that is, at one and the same time, a romantic melodrama, a neorealist expression of the class struggle, a radical examination of racial subjectivity, a celebration of the nuclear family, and a dissertation on black masculinity. It reveals a complicated concatenation of racial and cultural discourses that weave through the film and swirl around its production, dissemination, and consumption.

That a category such as “black film” should exist is itself testament to the volatility of those systems of knowledge that structure American discourses of race. From its earliest inception, American film was implicitly and explicitly raced as white. the repertoire of black caricatures, stereotypes, and distortions that cavorted across the landscape of nineteenth-century American culture made an almost seamless transition from stage and page to celluloid. One of the earliest narrative black representations on screen was a twelve-minute version of Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1903) made by Edwin S. Porter, and it should come as no surprise that the black characters were all played by white actors in blackface.

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