Plot: A transient black railroad worker decides to settle down when he falls for the daughter of a preacher man. Like a lot of black men living in the 1960s South, he struggles in his efforts for life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
The title immediately brings to mind of the line that is in most versions of the ballads and tall tales about John Henry, probably not coincidentally another black railroad worker. To paraphrase: "A machine's nothing but a machine, but a man is a man." Here, we have a moving and realistic portrayal of a man, a man caught in a machinery of racism and prejudice in the deep South, and I really like how honest that portrayal is. This isn't a platform for director Michael Roemer to whine about conditions for blacks in the South during the early 60s; instead, it's an honest examination of both those conditions and a flawed man trying his best to pursue happiness within that context. This has, I think thankfully, more to do with relationships between blacks living during this time period, pervading low standards and a lack of male role models. Duff truly is nothing but a man--working as hard as he can to get buy, desiring more, making mistakes, growing because of those mistakes, moving on. It's a hard look at a struggling young marriage and a father who has pretty much abandoned a son. This is low-budget, having the feel of a 70s or 80s television movie, and the acting is really raw. It gets in the way and keeps this from being a true masterpiece, but I did like and appreciate this one more than Killer of Sheep. I really liked opening shots of railroad work with harmonica accompaniment and a scene showing a wild church service.