A Circle of Love: Remembering Abbey Lincoln in “Nothing But a Man” (1964)

February 27, 2022   •   By Matthew Eng

Love redeems. Despite all the lovelessness that surrounds us, nothing has been able to block our longing for love, the intensity of our yearning.

— bell hooks, All About Love


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ABBEY LINCOLN’S FILM DEBUT was hardly auspicious. Costumed in a figure-hugging, lipstick-red dress — a hand-me-down worn by Marilyn Monroe in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953) — the musician lustily, incongruously belted out a big band spiritual titled “Spread the Word, Spread the Gospel” during a nightclub scene in Frank Tashlin’s The Girl Can’t Help It (1956). Her hair is short and straightened, the scarlet of her gown graphically matched to the movie’s similarly attired star, Jayne Mansfield, herself an industry-engineered Monroe imitator. Months after the release of Tashlin’s comedy, a still of Lincoln in the same Monroe dress appeared on the June 1957 cover of Ebony, accompanied by a paragraph-length story divulging Lincoln’s measurements. Forced to literally measure up to the epitome of white Hollywood desirability, Lincoln quickly came to resent and reject the standard sex-bomb image into which she had been commodified. As Lincoln later recounted in an episode of NPR’s Jazz Profiles, “I made some waves [in Hollywood]. But I escaped it because it was about to ruin my life. It was insincere.” As for the fate of the red dress, Lincoln told The New York Times, “Shortly after the film, I burned it in an incinerator to make sure I’d never wear it again.”

Instead, Lincoln chose a different image for herself and a new way of being an artist in the world. In her first albums, Lincoln traversed the Great American Songbook with renditions of classics like “This Can’t Be Love” and “Happiness Is a Thing Called Joe,” establishing herself as a musical love goddess. Early in her career, Lincoln wore her hair straight and crooned tunes of romance, betrayal, and unabashed decadence, singing, “It’s big / It’s black / It’s a new Cadillac,” on “Just For Me,” a number from her album It’s Magic (1958) that has fortunately been eclipsed within the span of her prodigious discography. Even in these early efforts, the robustness of Lincoln’s alto lends heft to these often frivolous ditties; when sung by Lincoln, each song becomes a proclamation, her flawless declamation leaving no time for hesitation from the lover who is wooing, winning, or wronging her.

But beginning with 1959’s Abbey Is Blue, Lincoln delved deeper into jazz, penning her own songs and embracing pan-African, pro-Black themes in her music, from opening track “Afro Blue” onward. Lincoln became visibly and outspokenly political in her personal and professional life in the 1960s, not just choosing to wear her natural hair, but advocating for causes close to the rapidly escalating Civil Rights movement and other liberatory efforts across the African diaspora. She led the 1961 protests at the United Nations in response to the assassination of Congolese Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba and, a year later, publicly took the white critic Ira Gitler to task for calling her a “professional Negro” in the pages of Down Beat. Holding her ground against Gitler on a panel discussion about “Racial Prejudice in Jazz,” Lincoln suggested that Gitler “preferred suffering black women performers to those who had agency and developed political beliefs.” Her relationship with the pioneering drummer and composer Max Roach, to whom she was married for eight years, bore the landmark, experimental protest album We Insist! Max Roach’s Freedom Now Suite (1960). In collaboration with Roach, lyricist Oscar Brown Jr., and others, Lincoln radically rebukes white supremacy’s centuries of sexual violence against Black women and acknowledges the offspring born and alienated in its wake on “Driva’ Man.” Later in the album, she lets out a series of blood-curdling, throat-shredding screams during the middle section of “Triptych: Prayer/Protest/Peace,” her voice a vessel for the anguish of Black Americans who have been brutalized across history. “In the scream I can hear the beaten slave woman, the mourning black wife or mother, the victim of domestic abuse and the rage and anger of contemporary black Americans,” Farah Jasmine Griffin writes in If You Can’t Be Free, Be a Mystery, illustrating the ways in which Lincoln’s raging, mournful music is constantly conversant with the present.

During this period, Lincoln also lent her talents to another project that is frequently glossed over in biographical accounts of her career, one that deserves greater attention as a definitive synthesis of the deep-feeling spirit of her jazz and the unswayable passion of her political activism. In the summer of 1963, Lincoln ventured back in front of the camera to make her acting debut in filmmaker Michael Roemer’s Nothing But a Man (1964). In this groundbreaking masterpiece of empathic storytelling, Roemer and co-writer Robert M. Young, both white, dramatize the trials and torments of a young, besotted Black couple in the Deep South. (Today, it is often cited, perhaps apocryphally, as the favorite film of Malcolm X.) Lincoln’s participation is key to the emotional power of Nothing But a Man, which renders the political concerns of Black Americans — concerns which Lincoln adamantly defended, oftentimes at the risk of derailing her career and isolating her from the mainstream — in a highly personal narrative that, for viewers familiar with Lincoln’s life and art, appears to draw on and make concrete the bone-deep integrity that was her bulwark against a racist and dehumanizing society.

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It is impossible to forget the blushing grin that rises across Lincoln’s face when she first catches sight of her co-star Ivan Dixon in the pair’s introductory scene in Nothing But a Man, immediately betraying her character’s instant attraction to his. Dixon is Duff, an itinerant railroad worker and war veteran toiling in a section gang outside her small Alabama town, and he has been brought to her buffet table by a matchmaking parishioner during a church banquet. Lincoln is the local preacher’s (Stanley Greene) beautiful, educated, 26-year-old daughter, employed as an elementary school teacher at an all-Black school, a vocation to which she is dedicated. Josie gamely flirts with Duff, a handsome stranger and self-admitted skeptic, who has wandered into her place of worship and coaxed her out of her chrysalis. In this scene and those that follow, including a first date in which Duff and Josie are harassed in their car by two white men, Lincoln crafts a performance that, in its understated expressivity, feels gracefully tailored to the eye of the camera. The ease with which Lincoln adapted to the requirements of screen acting, in which one uses the expressive capacities of body and voice to aid in the telling of an audiovisual story, should come as no surprise. Lincoln was always adept at using her vocal instrument as a storytelling device of immense clarity and pathos. “She had a way of telling stories,” Roach remembered. “Some singers — the sound of [their] voice may sometimes take precedence over the actual story that is being told by the song. […] I was impressed because she made me feel something from the story.”

Lincoln’s Josie emerges over the course of the film as a Black woman of radically nuanced ordinariness, one who radiates a modest self-possession and a comfort in her own skin, who solemnly mentions the lynchings that plagued her town not too long ago and wants to ensure a future for its Black youth. (“It’s hard to see any change. But I’m gonna stay,” she tells Duff.) Josie is respectful of her elders but not blindly obedient to their counsel. She is, after all, independent enough to follow her desire for Duff, who rejects her father’s belief in assimilation through appeasement. She is broad-minded enough to not flee when Duff tells her that he has a four-year-old son being raised by a stranger in Birmingham, the boy’s mother having decamped for Detroit. And she is bold enough to flout her father’s brusque dismissal of this rambling man and agree to marry Duff when he abruptly proposes to her days into their courtship. Lincoln conveys all of this with arch, tight-lipped smiles and searching stares, watching Dixon with the ever-present alertness of a jazz performer used to symbiotically heeding her collaborators. Her voice seldom rises above a whisper, even when protesting. It is a far cry from the deep, thunderous resonance of Lincoln’s singing voice, a decision that forces the viewer to pay close attention to Josie’s speech, perhaps indicating Lincoln’s own reverence for words as a songwriter newly coming into her own.

Josie bears no physical resemblance to Lincoln’s musical image either. The Lincoln who performed a selection from We Insist! on a Belgian television program in 1964, the same year as Nothing But a Man’s premiere, did so with a thousand-yard stare and raised chin, maintaining a stance of stoic, sphinx-like stillness even when replicating her screams on “Protest.” Lincoln’s performance choices in her film debut are naturalistic to the eye and ear, yet full of eloquent meaning; they can belie the directness of Josie’s declarations, evidenced in a scene where she sums up her romantic interest in Duff with the line, “I thought we might have something to say to each other,” spoken with utmost subtlety by Lincoln. In moments like these, free of melodrama, Lincoln recalls her own comments about one of her idols, Billie Holiday: “Billie was unadorned as far as her talent was concerned, the sound of her voice. She didn’t try to sound good or anything; she didn’t try to prove she was a great singer. [But] [s]he never made one sound that was insincere[.]” Through voice and gesture, Lincoln evokes a vast reservoir of feeling that Josie has been taught to conceal, but which her profound affection for Duff has only deepened and released.

Nothing But a Man arrived at a pivotal point in Lincoln’s career as a performer and thinker greatly concerned about fostering positive perceptions about Black life and love. During this time, she appeared on a panel at The New School on “The Negro Woman in American Literature,” wherein she remarked that “even hostile white writers had to ‘take note of the depth and single-minded devotion of the love of the Negro woman for the man of her choice.’” In 1966, two years after the film’s release, Lincoln penned a blistering essay for the Negro Digest entitled “Who Will Revere the Black Woman?,” an incensed and impassioned defense of “the women who nobody, seemingly, cares about, who are made to feel inadequate, stupid and backward, and who inevitably have the most colossal inferiority complexes to be found,” owing, in part, to the Black men who, “brainwashed and wallowing in self-loathing, pick for [their] own the physical antithesis of [them]”: the white woman.

These are the words of an artist-thinker who took great pride in being a woman, yet staunchly disavowed the second-wave feminist movement throughout her lifetime, particularly when it came to the exclusionary tendencies of its white leadership. (As part of a 1996 oral history for the Smithsonian National Museum, Lincoln doubled down on this view, maintaining, “There’s nothing greater than being female, but I’m not greater than a man and a man is not greater than me. No, I’m not a feminist. She preempted the Black movement, the feminist did.”) As Griffin writes, “Lincoln advocated a [Black] nationalist politics where [Black] women would finally have access to femininity, protection and domesticity,” a vital form of advocacy that nonetheless ran the risk of upholding heteronormative values, as some of her more confining and regressive comments indicate. “Who will keep our neighborhoods safe for black innocent womanhood? […] Who will keep [the Black woman] precious and pure?” Lincoln inquires at the conclusion of her Negro Digest piece.

The sincerity of Lincoln’s pleas cannot be denied, but her insistence on concepts such as innocence, preciousness, and purity paints a uniform image of the Black woman as so virtuous as to be unable to fend for herself, only awaiting the security of her male savior. These pleas recall the love-drunk chanteuse that Lincoln begrudgingly played in the nascency of her career, the one who opened her second album, That’s Him! (1957), with the lyric, “I’m in love with a strong man.”

In Roemer’s film, it is the female partner who fortifies her male beloved with her constancy and strong-mindedness. The pride and dignity of Lincoln’s performance as Josie acts as an effective counterpoint to the era’s anti-Black misogyny, against which Lincoln railed on page and stage. Such views are espoused in Nothing But a Man by the white male characters, who attempt to provoke Duff with lecherous comments about Josie, and the Black male characters, who try to dissuade the already marriage-averse Duff from committing to her. “All a colored woman wants is your money,” one of Duff’s elderly comrades on the railroad instructs him early in the film.

Duff marries Josie, compelled to be a better, more responsible patriarch than his absentee father (Julius Harris) was to him, even if that means moving into a small, ramshackle bungalow and taking a low-paying job at the local mill. But it is Josie, specifically as interpreted and embodied by Lincoln, that motivates Duff to grow and change by film’s end. Lincoln uses what Hilton Als referred to as “the sweet rationale behind her gestures” to not so much play as inhabit Josie. Lincoln’s Josie, far from a diamond in the rough, is a Black everywoman who has accrued considerable wisdom throughout her 26 years on earth, who realizes her worth and knows that real respect can only come from within. Through Lincoln’s efforts, this largely, though not simply, reactive character exemplifies the ways in which Black love, Black pride, and Black kinship are all integral elements in the day-to-day struggle for Black liberation. This realization, that the heart can also be a tool for dissent and defiance, is what made Nothing But a Man such a radical undertaking, then and today. It’s also a realization that Lincoln was working toward in her own then-evolving career, where artistry was inseparable from activism.

Midway through Nothing But a Man, Duff attempts to organize his fellow workmates at the mill into a united front and gains a reputation as a rabble-rouser by the white overseers who refer to him as “boy.” After being ratted out by another worker, Duff quits rather than concede defeat and struggles to find work that will not degrade him, ultimately landing a gig as a gas station attendant, only to lose it at the behest of local bigots. Faced with a husband whose dejectedness turns him unthinkingly cruel, Josie tries to reassure him, even when his violence — at first verbal and then, finally, startlingly physical — renders her mute. “You’re not a man because of a job,” she tells Duff before he packs his things and leaves. In an earlier scene, Duff asks Josie what keeps her from hating white people. “I guess I’m not afraid of them,” she elucidates. “They can’t touch me inside. […] Not if you see them for what they are.”

There is quiet resilience and resistance in these words as delivered with characteristic understatement by Lincoln. Moments like these ground and particularize the character, demonstrating that she is not merely a loyal helpmate standing selflessly by her man, but a woman watching the world and making up her own mind about it; a woman following in the footsteps of her late mother, “the only good teacher the colored school ever had”; a woman who longs to be a mother herself, inviting Duff to let his son live with them and chafing at his use of the word “pickaninnies”; a woman whose urge to protect the man she loves is evident from their first date, when she tells Duff, upon their brush with a pair of ogling racists, “I wouldn’t have let you [get into trouble back there].”

Lincoln’s performance is less a feat of theatrical virtuosity than one of character-serving restraint, encompassing so many aspects of an individual woman, who cannot be solely defined by her love for her man, even as this love resounds in moments of sorrow and jubilation. In tandem with Duff, the actress creates a tangible bond, a circle of love, as Lincoln herself once sang in a self-penned 1992 song of the same name, that can break the cycle of paternal neglect and marital estrangement and grant this couple the fortitude to survive in a world bent on breaking them down.

There is a fundamental distinction to be made between Nothing But a Man and similar Black and mixed-race romances of its era (Paris Blues [1961]; One Potato, Two Potato [1964]; Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner [1967]) and the respective performances of Lincoln and her contemporaries in these films. It is the difference between politics as lived and politics as preached. In these movies, love may be declared without necessarily being felt, treated as a dramatic dead end rather than a guiding light. There is scarcely a moment between the late Sidney Poitier and the majority of his onscreen love interests in the same decade that matches the credible, comfortable closeness of the scene in Nothing But a Man in which Lincoln’s gargling defuses a tense argument between Josie and Duff as they perform their bedtime ablutions. (Poitier deserved more chances to shrug off the strain that came with constantly being cast as a beacon of righteous respectability, more roles that allowed him to bask in love’s warmth and work through its shades.) Nor is there a moment that approaches the pure poignancy of the final scene in Roemer’s film as Duff returns home with his boy by his side and wakes up Josie, who beams with reflexive affection when she first sees the child asleep on their couch.

Nothing But a Man ends on a tight close-up of Lincoln’s face shedding tears of relief, an unburdening of the agony concealed prior to this reunion. Duff has returned to reciprocate the devotion Josie has unquestioningly lavished on him, a devotion that has registered through the unceasing attention the actress pays her co-star, her very being magnetized to his own. Duff’s declaration in the film’s final seconds — “Baby, I feel so free inside” — is a reassurance, a commitment to her that together they can face an uncertain future with the certainty of their love for one another. There is a kind of freedom, too, in Josie’s catharsis as enacted by Lincoln, who has never appeared so nakedly emotional as she does here. Her unbridled reaction — so raw that it sheds the guise of a performed emotion — becomes a transmission from actor to audience, one that speaks to the power of an imperfect yet sustaining love, capable of wracking the body with sobs even as it heals one’s spirit. For Duff and for Josie, this is the moment that life has been leading them to.

Lincoln’s achievement in Nothing But a Man, endowing a woman of ordinary origins yet extraordinary certitude with authentic emotion and insight, makes one wonder what opportunities Black actresses might be afforded in an industry that valued the everyday lives of Black women. In the still-unfolding conversations about representation that have sprung up in the years since #OscarsSoWhite, too little attention is paid to works of art that treat Black mundanity with intrigue and nuance. This should hardly come as a surprise in an industry that only celebrates the achievements of Black actresses when they play characters in chronic extremis or luminaries with readily accessible Wikipedia pages, that privileges Andra Day’s rote mimicry of Billie Holiday over the fine-grained humanity of Nicole Beharie in Miss Juneteenth from the same year. Beharie’s weary, strong-willed pageant mom in that film bears more dimensions than Lincoln’s Josie, but the performance’s power emanates from the same place as Lincoln’s: the artist’s inner being, where a character puts down roots and manifests from the experiences and emotional instincts of an actor.

Lincoln leaves no discernible space between her and Josie; what we see in Nothing But a Man is not a seasoned actress playing a part, but a committed artist bringing a woman to life with expressive grace and real-world understanding — with all that Lincoln, as a woman who took in the world around her with an inquisitive and unblinking gaze, knew to be true. “Knowing her music is to know a lot about Abbey Lincoln, as it is with the deepest artists,” Amiri Baraka wrote of Lincoln, an artist he revered above most others, in Digging. “Because so much of their whole feeling-thoughtful-combined selves is used to create their art.”

Lincoln’s artistry expanded and rambled throughout her life, though not on the big screen. Her only other starring film role was opposite Poitier in Daniel Mann’s For Love of Ivy (1968). In this misbegotten romantic comedy, a Black woman’s career ambitions precipitate a crisis in the affluent white household where she works as a live-in domestic. In turn, her employers set her up with Poitier’s suave wheeler-dealer as a bizarre means of keeping her around. Lincoln, openly bristling at the constraints of a life lived in the service of others, is the primary source of impact, emotional or otherwise. She produces a tender and tangible spark with Poitier, the two of them the only ones onscreen who act like a Black woman’s future is at stake.

After years of drifting in and out of the mainstream, Lincoln found in the 1970s and ’80s that her performing and recording opportunities were drying up in America, likely as a penalty for her militancy in the preceding years. But she found adoring publics and eager collaborators in Japan and France and across the African continent, sparking a recording renaissance that saw her release 10 new albums in the 1990s alone. Mostly made up of original compositions, by turns personal and playful, these works repudiate the glitz and glamour of a business that Lincoln had once glancingly engaged with before decisively turning her eye elsewhere.

When Spike Lee called on Lincoln to make an all-too-brief cameo as the pugnacious mother who nags Denzel Washington’s trumpeter into jazz greatness in 1990’s Mo’ Better Blues, he was paying citational tribute to Lincoln’s creativity, discipline, and time-honored legacy of seemingly limitless cultural exploration. But Lee miscasts Lincoln as a hectoring harpy, misusing her gifts as a performer of exacting intellect and capacious heart. Lincoln exuded an innate sincerity in front of the camera, a generosity of spirit impossible to imitate. As she did in song after song, Lincoln conveys in Nothing But a Man that love — for one’s partner, for one’s kin, for oneself — is the balm that makes the pain and insecurity of oppression bearable, the very force that sets one’s mind free.

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Matthew Eng is a Brooklyn-based writer and critic who has previously contributed to Film Comment, the Los Angeles Times, Reverse Shot, and The Undefeated, among other publications. He previously served as an associate editor and contributing writer with the Tribeca Film Festival.