A landmark of independent filmmaking, African-American screen representation and Jim Crow–era realism, Michael Roemer’s drama about a blue-collar worker struggling to retain his dignity doesn’t downplay an age of Southern inhospitality. Racism is a given, as much a part of the Alabama landscape as churches, filling stations and sawmills. Duff Anderson (Hogan Heroes’ Ivan Dixon), however, isn’t one to lose his cool over a redneck’s snide remarks. It’s a quality that endears him to the local preacher’s daughter (Abbey Lincoln), who eventually becomes his wife. But he also isn’t one to take the endless humiliations lying down, either—an attitude which eventually brands him as a “troublemaker.” Jobs dissolve as quickly as they are procured. An abandoned son reminds Duff of his past, while a drunken father he never knew suggests a probable future. This living death by a thousand daily cuts will take a toll on his soul.
There’s an unfinished, rough-hewn quality to Roemer’s film that adds a sense of vérité verisimilitude to even the most amateurish moments, while Dixon’s muted portrayal of his downtrodden everyman keeps teeth-gnashing histrionics perpetually at bay. Indeed, the ending—an emotional embrace that nearly rivals Pickpocket’s climactic clench—wouldn’t be nearly as moving without the restraint, and it’s that determination to portray the era’s inequality without excessive melodramatics that makes the film more than a time capsule. Still, its historical import as a peripheral civil-rights document can’t be understated. A change was on the horizon for every Duff Anderson out there; seeing the film today, it’s impossible not to gauge the distance traveled and note the miles left to go.
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