[28 February 2012]
PopMatters Film and TV Editor
“The original title was ‘The Nigger Who Sat by the Door,’” remembers Sam Greenlee. “But when Dick Gregory brought out this book called Nigger, I figured he had taken the sting out of it.” And so the writer of The Spook Who Sat by the Door decided on a “much more subtle” title, as “spooks” refer to blacks, CIA agents, and “the armed revolution by black people [that] haunts white America, and has for centuries.” Greenlee’s memories are among the most vivid in Christine Acham and Clifford Ward’s documentary, Infiltrating Hollywood: The Rise and Fall of the Spook Who Sat by the Door, which premieres on the Documentary Channel on 28 February. As he and other participants—including actors J.A. Preston and David Lemieux, as well as editor Michael Kahn and Berlie Dixon, widow of director Ivan Dixon—it becomes clear not only how difficult it was to make the movie, but also how clever and committed they were to getting it made.
The film, like the book, follows the efforts of Dan Freeman (played by the late Lawrence Cook) to put his training as a CIA agent (where he spent long hours in the copy room, a token hire to make the Agency look good) to work in a black militant movement. As he and his fellows make plans in Chicago, the film lays out the moral, ideological, and political stakes. “We knew it would be treated as a Blaxploitation movie,” says actor Paul Butler, “Because we were blacks making a film.” At the time, in 1972, studios saw Blaxploitation as the latest cheap way to make a profit, and so, as Dixon, Greenlee, and co-writer Mel Clay turned in scenes to United Artists full of strippers and drug dealers, they were able to keep working. This even as the film took on another set of issues, “explaining black disadvantage in the country,” as film historian Ed Guerrero says, examining the possibilities for a black militant movement, and expressing what Janet League-Katzin calls “the anger that people were feeling at the time.”
The documentary features stories of shooting scenes in Gary (where the new, first black mayor was supportive of the case), as well as a few scenes on the El in Chicago that had to be shot secretly (as Todd Boyd points out, Mayor Daley’s “politics were not by any stretch pro-African American”). The cast and crew recount daily difficulties and some odd sorts of harassments (which may or may not have been the work of COINTELPRO). “We were aware of political effect it was having as we made it,” recalls Butler. “It made us try even harder.” As the documentary recalls, the film did make it to theaters - briefly—in 1973. And then it “disappeared,” only available again in 2004, when it arrived in select theaters and on DVD. “I went through a period of depression and bitterness,” reports Greenlee, “I wrote myself out of that.” He goes on, “The paranoid hysteria [about the film] only confirms that I did something that was worthwhile. If they’d given me an Academy Award, I’d have to figure what I did wrong.”