Viewer Guide:Nothing But a Man and Fireflies in the Garden

June 7, 2019 | Richard Peña


Nothing but a man

This week’s classic is Nothing But a Man, a 1964 drama directed by Michael Roemer.

Sadly, like just about all progress for African Americans, breakthroughs in the cinematic portrayal of the black experience have been excruciatingly slow and hard won. But a giant step forward was achieved in a small and unassuming work called Nothing But a Man, a pioneering independent film starring Ivan Dixon—later of Hogan’s Heroes fame—and acclaimed jazz singer and actress Abbey Lincoln.

Dixon stars as Duff Anderson, an itinerant section gang laborer working with a railroad crew outside Birmingham, Alabama. Footloose on a night off, Duff decides at the spur of the moment to check out a gospel service, unexpectedly finding himself afterwards at a church supper.  There he meets Josie, a reserved young school teacher played by Lincoln. Against the wishes of her conservative father—who also happens to be the congregation’s preacher—Josie embarks on a shy courtship with Duff, who’s delighted by her interest but leery of getting tied down. An army vet who’s spent time stationed in Japan, Duff is a loner and not sure what he wants, just that he wants to keep moving. Yet despite their contrasting personalities and motivations, Duff and Josie continue to be drawn together, all the while negotiating the constant threat of racist harassment and repression in the volatile pre-Civil Rights era south—where avoiding confrontation is too often the only safe way to get by.

In the supporting cast, keep an eye out for Yaphet Kotto as one of Duff’s co-workers and Julius Harris as Duff’s alcoholic father. And the soundtrack of pop hits is courtesy of a hip new black-owned and operated record label that was giving “the British Invasion” a run for its Billboard chart supremacy—Motown Records.

A longtime professor of American studies and film at the Yale School of Art, director Michael Roemer was born in Germany to a comfortable middle-class Jewish family. Evacuated to England at age 11 as part of the Kindertransport effort to save Jewish children before the Nazi takeover of Europe, Roemer was educated at the progressive Bunch Court School southwest of London, then moved to Boston at age 17 to reunite with his mother and sister. Accepted at Harvard, Roemer became interested in filmmaking, going on to produce in 1962 the legendary documentary Cortile Cascino. An account of slum life in Palermo, Sicily, the film was considered so grim and hard-hitting that it was pulled from broadcast by NBC.

Despite having grown up a world away in Germany and England, Roemer would later remark that while touring the South with his friend Robert M. Young he recognized the fear and violence of segregation as being directly reminiscent of Nazi Germany. But in Nothing But a Man, instead of devising an overtly political statement, Roemer wanted to dramatize the quiet stories of people living under the everyday reality of segregation, describing the film as “showing how the economic system [and] the social system destroyed the most intimate relationships.” Although Nothing But a Man received acclaim at the New York Film Festival and was honored with two awards at the Venice Film Festival, finding distribution and theater bookings was tough to come by for a movie produced entirely outside the Hollywood system. A restored version was re-released in in 1993, with a DVD release in 2004.



This week’s indie is Fireflies in the Garden, a 2008 drama directed by Dennis Lee.

Ryan Reynolds stars as Michael Taylor, a successful writer on his way home to attend the long delayed college graduation of his mother Lisa, played by Julia Roberts. But as we soon discover in the film’s flashback structure, all his life Michael has had a complicated, volatile relationship with his father Charles, a demanding English professor played by Willem Dafoe, whose strict family rules were a constant source of friction with Michael. Consequently, visits home are not exactly warm reunions, perhaps even more so now that Michael has written the draft for an autobiographical novel titled Fireflies in the Garden, named after the poem by Robert Frost, which details Michael’s traumatic memory of his relationship with his father. Yet that likely explosive confrontation between father and son is up against what should be a happy occasion for the family and especially for his mother, who even in the most stressful time has always been the peacemaker. But then a tragic accident occurs, and everything for the Taylor family changes in an instant. Also featured is Emily Watson as Michael’s aunt Jane, with Hayden Panettiere appearing as the adolescent Jane. Carrie-Anne Moss is featured in a cameo role as Michael’s ex-wife Kelly.

Writers can be dangerous people—just ask anyone who has one in their family. Constantly searching for source material, everything and everyone in their personal lives may end up as “grist for the mill” for their next creative endeavor, with personal stories about themselves, friends and family blended with fictionalized elements for dramatic effect. While finding aspects of your life on the Best Seller List or on the short-list for the Oscars might seem intriguing, then again you may also not exactly like what you read or see. Fireflies in the Garden wrestles with that central issue of creative freedom vs. personal privacy—where should an artist draw the line between the private and the public? Writer-director Brian Lee’s 2013 film Jesus Henry Christ actually approached that theme from another angle, with its tale about a boy searching for the identity of his sperm donor father.

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