The Spook Who Sat by the Door (1973)
Anger is an emotion I’ve often struggled with over the course of my life. I was once discouraged from staging a production of 12 Angry Men simply because it wasn’t felt I could convincingly guide actors through the increasingly contentious storyline. Personally, I’ve never believed in Zodiac signs, but I’ll freely admit to being stunned when I've happened upon a paragraph-long explanation of my astrological sign in one form or another and found it scarily accurate. As far as watching anger onscreen, whether fiction (i.e. movies and TV) or non-fiction (a cell-phone captured altercation), I’ve got much less of a problem. Like uncomfortable comedy, I enjoy seeing people fight and scream with abandon. There have been countless filmmakers who have used the medium to broaden awareness of social issues, often through a harsh, uncompromising vision.
Spike Lee’s blistering Do the Right Thing is undeniably entertaining, which is how Lee introduces issues of race and inequality in a so-called presentable manner. Ken Loach’s political views, often regarding the labor movement in the UK, are filtered through relationships depicted in his films. Jennifer Fox’s harrowing and autobiographical The Tale (2018) goes on the attack, resulting in a stunning dénouement between a victim of sexual molestation and her abuser. Stanley Kubrick’s trilogy of anti-war films (Paths of Glory, Dr. Strangelove, Full Metal Jacket) are often cited (particularly Paths) for being rare examples of movies that succeed in not glorifying war, despite existing in a medium which is predominantly meant to entertain. Mathieu Kassovitz’s La Haine explored the poverty-stricken slums of Paris and the economic divisions in the world’s most romantic city. And if we’re talking about genuine rage, one doesn’t need to look farther than the devastating Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son About His Father (2008). Then there’s The Spook Who Sat by the Door (1973). A scathing indictment of a racist, corrupt government whose treatment of African-Americans is one of degradation and scorn. Spook works perfectly as a ferocious satire, but the themes it tackles remain very much rooted in reality.
Author and columnist DeWayne Wickham put the film’s political context into perspective when he described the times in which the book was written and the resultant film version. A great deal of white America was incensed by the progress the African-American community had experienced thanks to The Civil Rights Act of 1964, The Voting Rights Act of 1965, and The Housing Act of 1968. Of course, “progress” is a tricky word due to the snail-like pace of social and racial reconstruction in America. Racist and bigoted Americans are horrified when a minority group gains one measly inch in their quest for simple acceptance and equality. Spook’s author, Sam Greenlee, wrote the novel in 1966, the same year in which the film version of Amiri Baraka’s Dutchman received a minor release, but it wouldn’t be published until 1968, following countless rejections due to the book’s content.
The black militancy movement represented the other side of the same coin, as the “turn the other cheek” approach was criticized for being ineffective against an increasingly violent enemy. The timing of the film’s extremely limited release isn’t surprising as it was shown during the popular blaxploitation movement era. While the film’s message deserves to be seen and heard any time, it was a canny move by the filmmakers to produce the film when audiences appeared to be clamoring for more movies by and for African-American people. Writer/Director/Actor Robert Townsend describes seeing Spook in a theatre over a weekend and being blown away. Eager to encourage his friends to go out and see the film for themselves, he recalls “I told everyone about the film on Monday...and it was gone by Tuesday.” Greenlee claimed that FBI agents visited theaters and forced the owners to cancel screenings in an attempt to stifle the film’s political messages. United Artists, normally a haven for difficult, controversial endeavors, caved under pressure from what they saw as “political Armageddon.” While the film did turn a profit, its prints were ultimately destroyed and the negative was filed under a pseudonym to make it difficult to find. It’s practically a miracle the film has managed to survive. It’s now shown in universities and had the distinction of being selected by the National Film Registry for preservation in 2012.
The Spook Who Sat by the Door has an irresistibly delicious and radical premise. An African-American man, hired by the CIA to boost its image as a racially integrated organization (these days, they’d be described as “woke”), uses his government-provided expertise to launch a revolution by training freedom fighters in guerrilla warfare. Their goal? To take control of their destiny and free black people from the oppression of the white man. First and foremost, the film is about a group of people rising up against a common enemy, but a more subtle addition to the proceedings are the consequences of “blowback,” a term used by intelligence agencies to describe individuals given access to training and classified information only to use it against their superiors. Pretty much what would happen if James Bond went rogue, if you will. The word “spook” has a double meaning, acting as both a racial slur and a derogatory term for spy. The “Sat by the Door” part is practically spelled out in the film, as the CIA’s “token black” Dan Freeman (Lawrence Cook, Colors, Posse) is asked to lead a tour of the facility for a group of senators, prompting the higher-ups to suggest placing Freeman out in reception, like some sort of sideshow attraction promoting racial sensitivity. “Integration in action!”
I saw Spook at a revival screening in the early 2000’s and have never forgotten it. Most of the programming at this particular theatre (the now-closed Colony Theatre in Raleigh, NC) consisted of outrageous grindhouse fare, but occasionally, we’d get films with a harder, more socially-conscious edge. Producer/Director Ivan Dixon is best known for his role as Sgt. Kinchloe on the gloriously inappropriate but very popular Hogan’s Heroes but, like so many other participants in a high-profile piece of nonsense entertainment, was so much more than one role. A talented actor who rarely played the lead but was still heavily featured (A Raisin in the Sun, A Patch of Blue), he was very involved in the Civil Rights Movement and would later turn down many roles which he felt represented insensitive racial stereotypes. Nothing but a Man perhaps remains his finest achievement as an actor. His first film, Trouble Man (1972), following a few years of directing television, was an enjoyable but not particularly distinctive blaxploitation entry, but he’d make a singular contribution to cinema with Spook. Unfortunately, Spook would also be his final theatrical feature, but he’d carve out a prolific career in television, which would be highly diverse compared to his pre-Spook work. In the early 70’s, most of his directing gigs would be for African-American-led programs, but he’d later work on The Waltons, The Rockford Files, and Magnun P.I.. Some journalists have criticized the direction in Spook to be rather staid, with scenes playing out in wide masters or using basic coverage shots throughout. My counter is that Dixon recognized the importance of the material and didn’t want to intrude upon the dialogue with cinematic razzamatazz. If anything, he’s forcing a viewer to deal with the events unfolding with an unblinking eye, allowing scenes to unfold in real time. I’ll concede that the direction isn’t flashy, that much is true, but I still find the film riveting thanks to a screenplay by Greenlee and Melvin Clay (Overload).
The satire arrives fast and loose as Senator Harrington (soap opera mainstay Joseph Mascolo, Jaws 2) is informed that he may lose the black vote based on the polling results, which include nonsense phrases like “peer group anchorage” and “horizontal personal back stopping.” But he’s solid with the Jews, thank goodness. A politically motivated criticism of the CIA’s racially insensitive hiring practices spurs the Central Intelligence Agency (one of the shadier government agencies in film) to go through a rigorous screening process which they hope will eliminate all prospective applicants. It’s an expertly-edited montage of weapons training, testing, judgements by all-white panels, and such hilariously insensitive statements like “You represent the best of your race” and “Yes, they do make good athletes.”
The stand-out amongst the group is Freeman, whose fellow candidates chastise him for his unwillingness to loosen up and even ask “What kinda Tom are you?” This entire sequence works, thanks to the writing, direction, music (by virtuoso Oscar winner Herbie Hancock, Tommy Boy’s history exam answer) and the work by Oscar-winning editor Michael Kahn. The future editor of nearly every Steven Spielberg movie, starting with Close Encounters of the Third Kind, cut his teeth editing Hogan’s Heroes, which led to Dixon hiring him for Trouble Man and Spook, after which he’d edit exploitation films like the solid Truck Turner and even the hilariously bad The Devil’s Rain.
Five years roll by with nothing more than a passing reference to Freeman’s employment history and he announces that he’s taking a social services job in Chicago as a “goodwill operative.” If the film has one minor flaw, it may be that Dan Freeman comes off as something of a spartan. He’s quiet, unassuming, charming, influential, highly motivated, and very dangerous. As the film progresses, there’s very little in terms of conflict, which can be a death sentence for any movie. Instead, we get to see the minutiae of his ever-evolving plan to radicalize and militarize his “freedom fighters.” Lawrence Cook plays his role beautifully, underplaying at nearly every turn and speaking hard truths in a calm, collected manner. Even when he’s clearly angry, he never loses his cool. He’s able to turn a potential beat-down to his own advantage by convincing his three would-be attackers to join his team. Freeman makes it clear that the crew will need to become highly-skilled or else their attacks will do “as much damage as a mosquito to an elephant’s ass.” Extended sequences show how the use of “a mop and a bucket” allows black people to blend into the background as harmless servants. Later, they abscond with military grade weaponry after invading a military base with expert precision.
Possibly one of the most fascinating scenes arrives with a conversation between Dan and his propagandist, the light-skinned, “passing” Pretty Willie (real-life Black Panther member, David Lemieux). He’s urged to lead a bank heist in order to fund their underground organization and his very white-looking appearance will remove any suspicion from the African-American community. I’ll admit, I thought Willie was indeed a white man who was simply helping the group out in their cause. It’s an excellent scene, capped by Dan’s observation that “Education is the only thing the white man can’t take away from you.”
A minor line in Pulp Fiction is spoken by Bruce Willis as he’s leaving his apartment after blowing away his would-be assassin, Vincent Vega. “That’s how you’re gonna beat ‘em, Butch. They keep underestimating you.” It’s an apropos line that could be applied to Dan’s battleplan. He has his men apply needle marks to their arms so they’ll be thought of as junkies and therefore, not a threat to the police. “When you sleep on the floor, you can’t fall out of bed,” Dan states to his group. They’re nervous about being caught for the weapons theft, but Dan reassures them: “This took brains and guts, which we don’t have.” The white man’s belief that blacks are inferior will eventually lead to their downfall, much like General Custer or the too-trusting Trojans and that damn wooden horse. The higher-ups at the CIA are so convinced that African-Americans would be unable to mobilize amongst the civil unrest, they believe it must be a Russian agent pulling the strings.
Chaos reigns as riots break out, triggered by the death of a black youth at the hands of two policemen; a scene which parallels events of today. The guerrilla army takes over a radio station, Airheads-style, and lets the white man know that they’re “fresh out of hillbilly music” and that “liberation is near.” The mayor’s office is bombed and a Colonel with the National Guard is kidnapped, fed acid, covered in makeup to mimic black face, and stripped down to his underwear. The last we see him, he’s on a child’s tricycle and announces that he “met the most marvelous bunch of niggers,” before getting shot in the chest by a sniper.
Another great scene involves an impromptu “white” history lesson as the militants act out the idealized version of a post-Civil War, post-Emancipation Proclamation world where masters and slaves console each other and even regret having to part. “Massuh Charlie, we’ve never paid any dues!” It’s quite funny and a revelatory moment for the stereotypical and white-washed depiction of African-Americans in popular entertainment. Dan laughs, then delivers a sobering statement: “You have just played out the American dream. And we’re gonna turn it into a nightmare.”
Dan played the long game, staying in the CIA for five years as a model employee in order to fully infiltrate the organization and gain their trust. During his subsequent ruse, he runs into a variety of characters. There’s Dahomey Queen (Emmy nominee Paula Kelly, Soylent Green), a prostitute who is initially disinterested in his ideas but comes to appreciate his worldview. Considering the racist temperament of the CIA, she still manages to infiltrate by becoming an escort to Freeman’s boss, thereby allowing her to smuggle information out to Dan. His ex-girlfriend (Janet League) represents the last vestiges of his old life, but she becomes intricate to the plot since she plants the seeds of doubt in Pete Dawson (J.A. Preston, Body Heat, Remo Williams), a cop who begins to suspect his friend Dan isn’t as mild-mannered as he appears.
This leads to the climactic final scene where Pete gets the drop on Dan in his apartment. For a brief moment, it seems as though Dan’s goose is cooked, although he’s still defiant enough to tell Pete: “Even on the wrong end of your gun, I’m a lot freer than you are.” Although Pete plugs Dan in the gut, he’s stabbed with a knife and dies instantly, which has never been very convincing in films. People may criticize Paul Reubens’ extended death scene in Buffy The Vampire Slayer, but you don’t die right away from being stabbed. The crew arrives and Pete’s body is taken out, while a wounded but still determined Dan informs them to move the plan into “Condition Red.” The film ends with an announcement that the attacks in Chicago are “a national emergency” and we’re left with a cliffhanger ending as the fighting continues...
Sam Greenlee describes the making of The Spook Who Sat by the Door as exhilarating. He would shoot all day and night, then “wake up in the morning, vibrating.” Despite knowing some very wealthy African-American people in Chicago, he couldn’t raise any money from them. Still, he was able to scrape the money together, along with Dixon, and while they weren’t certain they’d be able to make the payroll day by day, an extraordinary film emerged.
With an absolute certainty that filming permits couldn’t be obtained, all of the location shoots in Chicago were done guerrilla-style; ironic considering the subject. Greenlee describes shooting a brief scene on the L-Train platforms and then simply boarding the train to shoot some traveling shots. The cost of shooting was “a train ticket.” They paid to go into the station, so they shot there. It’s a classic example of a film successfully being produced despite major obstacles in the way. Spook represents an angry ideal, but it's also a passionate plea for a race of people to rise up against oppression and take back what is rightfully theirs.