“Nothing But a Man” is one of the two best movies ever made about black life in America. The other is Charles Burnett’s “Killer of Sheep,” from 1977, an oblique, black-and-white daydream of life in South Los Angeles. “Nothing But a Man” was directed and co-written by Michael Roemer and released in 1964 and also filmed in black and white. But it unfolds with a clear-eyed realism that can’t afford the luxury of Burnett’s disorienting magic.
Delicately but not unsparingly, Roemer’s movie, which screens at the Harvard Film Archive through Jan. 20, tells the story of a handsome railroad worker named Duff (Ivan Dixon), who meets a schoolteacher named Josie (Abbey Lincoln) and leaves his itinerant section crew to settle down with her in a modest country shack. But romance is elusive and headaches steady. Duff takes a labor job and isn’t amused by the pointed joshing of a lone white co-worker. The other men tolerate it because it is, they feel, their lot in life: turning the other cheek.