Recently the Sundance Channel has been showing the underappreciated gem, Nothing But a Man. I’m not aware if it’s still in their channel’s rotation, so I’d advise you to check their site, Netflix it, or even blind buy it.
The first movie that came to mind while watching Nothing But a Man was Charles Burnett’s Killer of Sheep. Both of these films are brilliant in their own right, though Burnett’s picture being vastly better, and warrant comparisons to one another not just because of their quality but because of how the two films blend together. Killer of Sheep takes place in the 70s out in LA while Nothing But a Man takes place within the South with no given date as I remember. I believe it is supposed to set in the early 60s at the latest considering there is no mention of the Civil Rights Movement which began in the South. Though the two movies take place at least a decade apart and on the opposite side of country from one another. They offer both the depressing and profound revelation of what it was and is like to be a black man and you even get a sneak peek about black women too.
Both films feature working class black men trying to support their families. Killer of Sheep is more about the inward battle with oneself than the outside conditions, because even though there are situations that are unfortunate for Stan (protagonist in said film) these problems aren’t really brought on by people who are against him or they are done to his own folly. A mixture of both being when Stan gets convinced to not properly secure a new needed engine for his car by his friend and as soon as they drive off the engine falls out the back of the truck. Nothing But a Man on the other hand has more outward problems. The obvious being the extent of racism in his workplaces throughout the movie. Or the meeting with his dad and son latter.
In Nothing But a Man this outward incidences lead towards his frustration of himself as a man because he is unable to stand up for himself as a man at work without being bothered or being forced by customers or white co-workers into submissive positions. He takes this out on his wife by either abstaining from sex and latter in the movie physically pushing her away. Meanwhile in Killer of Sheep, Stan too distances himself from his wife’s advances as well as playing with his kids. The only emotional release we see in Killer of Sheep is at the end of the film where he fervently slaughters/skins the sheep at his job in the morning. Nothing But a Man however ends with him reconciling with his wife and picking up his son to live with him. Though he may work demeaning jobs, he steps up to be a man in standing by his family. It’s easily the more optimistic of the two.
What was interesting for me when experiences these two films, is how it still manifests itself in new ways among my peers and even the generation before me. It’s not really the need to buy and wear expensive things to show/prove to anyone and everyone that you have the money to do whatever you wish. It’s the little things that stick out to me. Namely the treatment and the type of women chosen. Every action seems to attempt to fulfill the need to validate to her that you are not only A man but THE man. Over aggressiveness, hypersensitivity and the need to show her that she isn’t the only woman who you could have.
Is this shown in the two movies? Sort of. Both the wives in Killer of Sheep and Nothing But a Man stand by their husbands through it all. Offering comfort at ever turn and even with standing physical and emotional abuse. Unfortunately, this isn’t delved into much in either film. Which is strange in specifically Nothing But a Man‘s case considering she is the reason he changes he ways and wants to become a real man. Maybe I’ll find a film out there that puts effort to examine a black woman’s effort to help her other half find solace or even hope in the predicament that they are both in.