If we’re gonna be outsiders, man, take advantage of being outside. If you wanna be a rich ho, then go to Hollywood. If you wanna say something true about black people, then do what we did. Raise the money from the black community and shoot what you want.
—Sam Greenlee, “One on One”
Yes, they do make good athletes.
—General (Byron Morrow), The Spook Who Sat By the Door
“The bling blings are looking for a white audience,” says Sam Greenlee in an interview included on Monarch’s DVD of The Spook Who Sat By the Door. “My audience is not white.” Comparing his own experience with today’s hiphoppish excesses, Greenlee is understandably skeptical of commercial processes. Writer of the 1966 novel on which Ivan Dixon’s 1973 film is based, Greenlee’s frustrations with history between then and now are palpable.
The Spook Who Sat By the Door remains one of the few uncompromised representations of black armed resistance in the United States. Dewayne Wickham, USA Today columnist, provides context in the DVD’s introduction to the film: “It was a story of aggressive reaction to white oppression.” On its initial release, the film garnered mixed responses. Whereas, according Wickham, “There was violent reaction in some parts of white America,” for many black viewers, it was a wakeup call. Theaters in Chicago, New York, Los Angeles, and Oakland sold out for the three weeks the film was in release. Greenlee and Dixon contend that the FBI pressured the distributor to pull the film (in keeping with other tactics deployed the Bureau’s COINTELPRO [Counter Intelligence Program]).
Since 1973, the film has only been available on bootleg videos, until Monarch released it to DVD in January. As Robert Townsend recalls for the DVD’s introductory piece, “The Spook Who Sat By the Door changed my life. There was a sense of, what if we took destiny into our own hands. Now there are no communities. This film is about a sense of community.”
Today’s contexts—so fragmented, so hurried and strained—make the film seem at once dated and immediate, a duality supported by Herbie Hancock’s brilliantly percussive soundtrack. Wickham says, “If you accept it as the message movie it was meant to be, as the protest film it was intended to be, I think a lot of people will enjoy it as a film and also come away with a heightened sense of awareness about themselves, about the struggles of our people, and about the need for us to come together to move our agenda forward.”
This need is made clear in the film’s first moments. The Spook Who Sat By the Door opens in the office of a white Senator (Joseph Mascolo) as he worries about—what else?—his reelection. Given to understand that the “Negroes are the trouble spot,” he conjures a cynical appeal, namely, accusing the CIA of discriminatory hiring practices, in order to win over black voters. “I’m the best friend those people have in Washington,” he asserts.
The hiring proceeds as a contest, with potential agents competing against one another for a vexed prize. Even as the white recruiter, Carstairs (Jack Aaron), tells them, “You men… represent the best of your race,” they are subject to constant secret surveillance, distrusted and examined like lab animals. Imagining they’re alone, the recruits make “integration” jokes: “Ain’t it groovy to be a spy?” or “We the first spooks to be spooks in the CIA.” Their training montage, accompanied by Hancock’s synthetic whops and slides, comprises all sorts of standard secret agenty tests: bomb defusing, martial arts, scuba diving, academics, athletics, and demolitions.
Through this process, their initial unity soon dissolves, as they’re pitted against one another for this seeming honor. They accuse one another of being too eager to please the white man: “What kind of Tom are you anyway?” one asks the leading contender, Dan Freeman (Lawrence Cook), so focused and quiet that the General (Byron Morrow) overseeing the process says, “Somehow I forgot Freeman even existed, he has a way of fading into the background.” As the film has it, this quality is precisely what makes him dangerous: no one, black or white, suspects the mild-mannered Freeman of hostility, anger, or ingenuity.
Freeman understands what’s at stake in their “training.” “None of us were picked for our militancy,” he observes. When he “wins” the competition and is duly assigned as the Agency’s “new top secret reproduction center section chief,” that is, the Xerox room, Freeman continues to observe and learn, his hostile environment repeatedly figured as the long white hallway he walks at CIA headquarters.
Five years later, he quits the Agency (“You’re a credit to your race,” says the General) in order to work for a “do-gooder outfit in Chicago.” Assigned to work with a street gang, the King Cobras, he retrains them as a revolutionary underground movement, to challenge The Man on his own terms. “You really wanna mess with whitey,” he tells the Cobras, “I can show you how.” His assembly resembles the BPP (Black Panther Party), complete with a Minister of Information, Pretty Willie (David Lemieu), assigned to “talk to the people in a language that they understand.”
Unlike the white vigilante movie heroes so popular at the time of this film’s release (Dirty Harry, Buford Pusser, Death Wish‘s Paul Kersey), Freeman’s cause is not personal (or not completely personal, anyway). On leaving the CIA, he spends time in his Chicago neighborhood, observing childhood friends running numbers, pimping, and pushing drugs. Freeman sees a clear and present opponent: confronting one of these locals, Freeman demands that he see beyond his limited horizon. “White folks control your neighborhood through drugs,” he grumbles, “And you dealing?”
To its credit, The Spook Who Sat By the Door complicates Freeman’s desires for revenge and respect. He’s more contemplative and less solitary than the standard blaxploitation hero, as comfortable riding a desk as he is working with his own recruits in scenes that recall and also refract the CIA training scenes (where Freeman and his fellow recruits wear Agency-issued jumpsuits, so they all “look alike,” his crew wears assorted revolutionary costumes: berets and jean jackets, knit caps and bellbottoms. He instructs his soldiers, “We live off the land, we match technology with spontaneity and improvisation.” He also teaches them to steal, not from “your black brothers and sisters,” but from “the enemy.” Their access to white establishments is easy: “Remember, a black man with a mop, tray or broom in his hand can go damn near anywhere in this country, and a smiling black man is invisible.”
At the same time, Freeman strikes the requisite macho-sex pose. He maintains a relationship throughout the film with his light-skinned, Cook County casework supervisor girlfriend Joy (Janet League), even after they officially “break up” and she marries another, more conventional man. At the same time, Freeman charms a hooker (Paula Kelly) he meets while training in D.C., calling her his Dahomey Queen (and encouraging her to wear her hair “natural”). Joy takes a middle of the road approach to change: “Since the war on poverty,” she says, “all the social workers are making money,” that is, the best way to get ahead is to work within the corruption that can’t be fixed anyway. Freeman’s goals are more profound: he wants “the poor” to benefit from this so-called “war” as well.
Freeman and the Cobras form a tight, if occasionally uneasy unit, as they question his leadership, absorb his lessons, and take the revolution to the streets. During a seemingly playful moment, the crew discusses the racism that shapes their everyday lives, from childhood memories to career “options” to stereotypes: “You dig those plantation movies on television? No chains, no whips. Bunch a happy darkies just waitin’ on Massa Charlie and his family and diggin’ it.” Amused and alarmed by the image, the guerillas declare their need for independence: “What we got now is a colony, what we wanna create is a new nation. In order to do that, we gotta pay a different kind of dues. Freedom dues.”
Toward this end, Freeman sees in U.S. Vietnam War-era imperial policies a chance to intervene. “There is no way that the United States can police the world and keep us on our ass too,” he argues, “unless we cooperate.” The counterargument is embodied in his longtime best friend, Dawson (J.A. Preston), now a detective and a specialist in “inner city riot control.” When a riot breaks out in Chicago, Dawson and Freeman are on point, courtesy of their state jobs, to quell it. They argue over strategy and possibility. Dawson believes in “law and order or we might as well be back in the jungle.” But for Freeman, “The ghetto is a jungle, always has been. You understand, you cannot cage people like animals and not expect them to fight back someday. It has always been an army occupation here, with police badges and uniforms. You and me, cop and a social worker, we are keepers of this goddamn zoo.”
In a film replete with potentially incendiary speeches, this one may be the most overtly furious, indicting assimilation, complicity, and just getting along, as much as any specific aggression or systematic oppression. For all its obviousness, stilted acting, and low budget deficiencies, The Spook Who Sat By the Door retains its sense of urgency and outrage.
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