Duff (Ivan Dixon) is a black man who is a member of a railroad crew, laying track in a small Southern town. He meets Josie (Abbey Lincoln), a local black woman who is a teacher, at a church social. Neither Duff’s nor Josie’s parents think he is a suitable match for her (when he asks her why she is going out with him, she says, “You don’t think much of yourself, do you?”). But she tells him he isn’t “sad” like the men she knows, and that she thought they’d have something to say to each other.
They get married, and he goes to work in the mill. But he cannot accept the hazing by the whites who work at the mill and is fired when a casual remark about “sticking together” is interpreted as an indication of labor organizing. Word gets around, and he is unable to get a job at the other mill or keep jobs picking cotton or working in a gas station. Josie gets pregnant, and Duffs sense of despair at not being able to care for her begins to eat at him. He leaves her, saying, “I ain’t fit to live with no more. It’s just like a lynching. They don’t use a knife, but they got other ways.”
He goes to see his estranged father, who dies from alcohol abuse brought on by his own despair. Duff realizes he has to do better than that. He picks up his young son, who had been boarding in another city, and takes him home to Josie. He says, “It ain’t going to be easy, but it’s going to be all right. Baby, I feel so free inside.”
This thoughtful, quiet movie was not widely distributed when it was made in 1964, but it has had an enduring and well-deserved reputation as a sensitive portrayal not just of a particular moment in the tortured history of race relations in this country, but also as an intimate story of human dignity and the need for connection.
In a way, Duff struggles with the same problem that Mary Kate Danaher struggles with in The Quiet Man — to achieve the sense of completeness and equality necessary to be able to enter a relationship fully. Josie may be right when she tells Duff he doesn’t think much of himself, but he thinks enough of himself to say to Josie’s father, “You’ve been stooping so long, Reverend, you don’t know how to stand straight. You’re just half a man.” When the Reverend tells him to “make ’em think you’re going along and get what you want,” Duff says, “It ain’t in me.” This is part of what Josie loves about him, part of what distinguishes him from the “sad” men she knows, like her father, who knew who was responsible for a lynching but did not say anything.
Duff sees his father die, broken and alone, and he knows he will do better than that. Duff finds in his son (though he says that he doubts he is the boy’s natural father) what he cannot find in his environment, a way to be more than “half a man.”
The portrayal of the life of the people in this movie is harsh. None of the black characters have warm, loving, intact families. Duff’s failure to be involved in the life of his son may strike some viewers as callous and others as a racist (or sexist) stereotype.
Parents should know that the movie has some strong language, including racial epithets. There are sexual references and situations. Duff’s friend patronizes a prostitute. Duff says he is not the father of the child he is supporting. On a date, Duff says to Josie, “Next time we’ll have to hit the hay or get married, and you don’t want to hit the hay and I don’t want to get married.” When Duff tells his friends he is going to marry Josie, one says he must have “knocked her up.” White men make sexual references about Josie as a way of humiliating Duff. Characters drink and smoke, and a character is an alcoholic.
Families who see this movie should talk about the way that Josie, Duff, and the Reverend all express views of how to interact with white people. How are they different? Duff calls the Reverend a “white man’s n—–.” Is that fair? When Duff asks Josie why she does not hate whites, she says, “I don’t know. I guess I’m not afraid of them.” What difference does that make?
Families who enjoy this movie will also enjoy The Defiant Ones.