The Spook Who Sat By the Door (1973)

Cynthia Fuchs

It remains one of the few uncompromised representations of black armed resistance in the United States.

The Spook Who Sat By the Door

Director: Ivan Dixon
Cast: Lawrence Cook, Jack Aaron, Don Blakely, Paul Butler, Paula Kelly
MPAA rating: PG
Studio: United Artists
First date: 1973
US DVD Release Date: 2004-01-27
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.


Spawning Ground

David Antrobus

In this ancient place of giant ferns and cedars, it seems the dead outnumber the living; the living fall away too quietly, too easily, taken away by stealth. There is tremendous natural beauty here, but its hold is tenuous, like moss clinging to rotting bark that will ultimately break and sink into the forest floor.

If I were to choose a visual symbol of my adopted home of Mission, an average-size town in the impossibly green western Canadian province of British Columbia, I would probably come up with a rotting carcass in a verdant pasture, a vision of death amid life. If this sounds harsh, hear me out and I'll tell my own truth about this place.

Clinging to the swift-scoured, salmon-haunted northern bank of the mighty Fraser River like an ailing lamprey to the deadly smooth flank of a Great White, this town, situated about 70 kilometers east of Vancouver, owes its entire existence to the water of its rivers and lakes, and to the wood harvested from the dense, surrounding forest. Settled in the mid-19th century, Mission has managed to survive despite two serious floods, a bridge collapse, the ominous early signs of malaise in the natural resource sector (did we really think the salmon and the great conifers were infinitely, magically renewable?), and a general reputation for unfocussed, redneck belligerence.

It all comes down to the Fraser River. The river has brought both food and trade; it provides a thoroughfare upon which the people of Mission (among others) float the great log booms that are the defeated renderings we humans fashion from the vast tracts of coastal rainforest (cedar, spruce, fir, hemlock) in our seemingly inexhaustible compulsion to exploit her resources and bring Mother Nature to her matronly knees — in part because (we believe) we can.

But the details about life in this town — the jeweler murdered in a robbery, the pretty high school graduate killed by a drunk driver, the 14-year-old suicide — in fact, all the jostling narratives crowding like paparazzi, each insisting on exclusive front page drama, bubble and coalesce and ultimately conspire to reveal the hidden Mission. There is a dark vortex lurking beneath the seemingly placid surface; the ominous shadow of something ancient beneath sun-dappled waters. Even the countless apparent banalities playing out on the town's rural borders disguise something deeper, more clandestine: the hobby farmer up in MacConnell Creek bemoaning his exhausted well; the entrepreneur hungry for an investment opportunity, eager to transform the hillsides of quiet, bucolic Silverdale into sudden, lockstep suburbia; the hiker mauled by a black bear in the mountains north of Steelhead. And always, the numerous lives derailed by marijuana grow-op busts. For all the gradual liberalisation of laws at the consumer end of this local economic rival to wood and water, those who supply the celebrated crop usually feel the full force of Canadian justice, anyway. There are times when nothing in Mission seems devoid of some kind of meaning.

A monastery sits above this town, a Benedictine haven of alternating silence and the evocative clatter of Sunday Matins bells. Its tower is phallic and disproportionately defiant, rising above the landscape like a giant darning needle, casting its intrusive shadow over the patchwork quilt of human settlement as if to stitch a final tableaux, symbolically and definitively, of the history of the original inhabitants and their mistreatment at the hands of the white settlers. Said inhabitants were (and are) the Stó:lo people (their language, Halq'eméylem, was an exclusively oral tradition, so the words are spelled phonetically nowadays). Stó:lo territory stretched along the river valley from present-day Vancouver to Yale in the Fraser Canyon, a 170 kilometer swath of virgin, fecund land, teeming with such totemic creatures as salmon, ancient sturgeon, deer, black bear, cougar, coyote, beaver, and wolf.

The Stó:lo, a Native American (or First Nations) people belonging to the larger group of Central Coast Salish, settled this area around 10,000 years ago. Europeans, attracted by rumours of gold, arrived in the 1850s. The resulting clash of cultures did not work out well for the indigenous people, and today they are still recovering from the trickle-down effects of at least one generation having been torn from its extended family. Residential schools, for which the monastery in Mission is a present-day symbol, were sites of a particularly virulent form of cultural genocide. First Nations children across Canada were taken from their homes, often exposed to physical and sexual abuse and occasionally murder, their mouths scoured with soap if they even dared to utter their own languages. St. Mary's in Mission, founded in 1861 and relinquished in 1984, was the last residential school in Canada to close.

There are 82 Indian Reserves in the Fraser Valley. There are eight correctional institutions, two in Mission alone (Aboriginal people represent around four percent of the Canadian population, yet account for 18 percent of the federally incarcerated population). Somebody — something? — really likes to control and segregate people, around here.

This fragmentation is reflected in the odd demographics of the town in general. Leaving their multicultural mark have been, at various times, Italians in Silverdale, Swedes in Silverhill, the French in Durieu, the Japanese in the early years of the fruit industry (as in the US, the Japanese were rewarded for their labours by being sent to internment camps in 1942), and immigrants from India in the early days of the shake and shingle mills. (The Western Red Cedar, with its straight grain, durability, and imperviousness to the incessant rain, while inspiring Native culture with the quixotic grandeur of totem poles, grabbed more prosaic European imaginations in the form of the shake and shingle industry, which provides reliable roofing and siding components for homes.)

In some ways, Mission is a vibrantly conflicted example of Canada's multicultural mosaic. With just over 30,000 residents (of which 3,000 are First Nations) mostly crammed into a relatively small area, bordered by the river to the south and the mountains to the north, mill workers and biker gangs, artists and Mennonites, muscle car boys and summer folkies, soccer moms and Sikh Temple-goers, merchants and pagans, Freemasons and caffeine addicts, street people and Renaissance Faire anachronisms all rub shoulders with varying degrees of friction, occasionally achieving harmony in spite of themselves. Perhaps the relative accord is due to the overall youth of the population (73 percent are under 35-years-old).

Earlier, I mentioned the presence of death. Why? Because it is everywhere here, its proximity eerily palpable. It inhabits the sly rustle of the towering conifers. It taints the air with the swampy pungency of skunk cabbage in springtime. It hums incessantly in the sub-woofer buzz of the hydroelectric dams. It shuffles along in the downcast, scuff-shoed limp of a lone child returning to a chilly home. From a distance, even the monks in their dark cassocks, knit-browed and bound by their vows of silence, seem eerily close to the Reaper caricature. For actual evidence of its pervasiveness, though, one need not go far back in time.

The bodies of three women were dumped between here and neighbouring Agassiz back in '95. Suicides and the furtive aftermath of murder, barely registering in the town at all, have spattered Burma Road, a potholed strip of rocks and dirt skirting the shore of Stave Lake. In 1997, Doug Holtam of Silverdale (a small community west of Mission) bludgeoned his pregnant wife and six-year-old daughter to death with a hammer. Against all odds, his young son Cody survived the attack. In 1995, a drunk driver, leaving in his wake not only the proverbial outpouring of community grief but also a devastated twin sister, killed 18-year-old Cindy Verhulst during the week she and her peers were busy celebrating their high school graduation. There was the little boy who slipped away from his day care centre and drowned in the swollen Fraser River. The 12-year-old boy found hanging from a school washroom towel dispenser. The elderly pilot whose body was discovered in dense forest a full two years after he had gone missing. And there was Dawn-Marie Wesley, a 14-year-old Native girl who took her own life in the basement of her home after enduring relentless bullying at school; barely noticed in life, Oprah material in death.

As disturbing and tragic as these stories are, however, there was little precedent for the breaking news in the summer of 2003. This one will need a little background.

Since the mid-'80s, women have been disappearing from Vancouver's Downtown Eastside, Canada's poorest postal code. Partly due to the initial incompetence of the Vancouver Police Department and jurisdictional issues with the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP), partly due to the amorphous (read: investigative nightmare) nature of the disappearances, and partly because so few people cared about missing hookers and addicts, more and more women went missing, with nary a ripple in the public consciousness (or conscience). In fact, as of this writing, a horrifying total of 65 individuals are currently on the Missing Women list. For years, law enforcement didn't even refer to their disappearance as crimes, and it wasn't until 1998 that an official task force was even assigned to investigate.

Finally, in February 2002, Robert William Pickton, a pig farmer from the Vancouver suburb of Port Coquitlam (approximately half way between Vancouver and Mission), was charged with two counts of first-degree murder of two of the missing women. More charges followed in the months ahead. Pickton currently faces 15 counts of first-degree murder with seven more expected. DNA samples of 31 women have been linked to his 10-acre farm. In short, potentially the largest serial murder case in Canadian history is now underway just 35 kilometers from Mission.

Given the frequent intrusion of death into the area, I suppose it should have surprised no one when, on 20 July 2003, the missing women's joint task force announced they would be searching an area of wetlands near Mission. Just south of Highway 7 (aka the Lougheed Highway) and the man-made body of water known as Silvermere (itself the subject of a delightfully creepy urban legend or two), the area is basically marshland bisected by a meandering slough. Immediately following the announcement of the search, the site was fenced off with temporary chain link, and the highway's wide shoulders — traditionally home to roadside fruit and flower vendors hawking their locally grown products — were suddenly and unequivocally off-limits.

Driving this formerly innocuous stretch of blacktop, especially under the after-dusk arc lights, with their swirling bug armadas and liquid island oases in the dark, now touched off an indescribably eerie feeling. It was a relief when, on 8 August, the entire ensemble of law enforcement personnel (numerous forensic investigators plus 52 anthropologists) took up their tools again and vanished. They gave no word of what they had uncovered or even whether anything had been found at all, leaving our community to its familiar, fitful dreams once more. Mission's part in this unfolding story, as it relates to the wider world, remains amorphous and indistinct, with its usual chilly glints of barely suppressed horror flickering amid the overall grey.

Here, it seems, empirical proof takes a back seat to rumour and anecdote every time.

Sometimes, while hiking alone in the tree-bejeweled mountains west of Steelhead, east of the dams, I have suddenly felt the fetid breath of graves, a harsh raven-shadow lurking behind the abundant emerald and olive greens of this sodden paradise. Inexplicable noises in the deep tangled brush; distant rending, gnashing. Something skulking and hungry. With all the assured rationality of the white male immigrant, I've been known to smirk at the idea of ghosts, and yet stumbling along a jade-tunnel trail bristling with old man's beard and devil's club, I've occasionally recoiled from something, the skin of my arms prickling with gooseflesh. There are spirits here, all right, something not too far removed from the capricious tricksters who inhabit indigenous myth. Spectres of a kind, nursing some nameless, hollow ache of unrequited need rendered manifest, paradoxically, by a landscape dripping with life.

The closest we Europeans get to perceiving this (however inadvertently) can be heard in the low extended rumble of the nighttime freight trains as they call out in the dark, hunching parallel to Railway Avenue long after most residents are asleep, lonely as a buffalo herd that's somehow seen and almost comprehended its own approaching ruin.

Of course, my telling is by no means the complete, illustrated history of Mission, a town that can barely hold onto its own name (since 1884, take your pick: St. Mary's Mission, Mission Junction, Mission City, Village of Mission, Town of Mission, and currently the District of Mission). Not by a long shot; this lurid splash portrays but a small corner of the canvas. How can any one person paint the full picture of a community, after all? No, despite my perverse zeal to stir the viscous mud below the bright surface, great deeds and happy memories adorn the history of this place, too, adding the sparkle and lustre of life above and hopefully beyond the stillness and silence. And yet, no matter how much joie de vivre this community may exhibit on its special days, like a red-carpet celebrity when the cameras start rolling — whether it be the laughing children with their maple leaf flags and pancake stacks celebrating Canada Day up at Heritage Park, or the benevolently stoned crowd at the annual Folk Festival, or even the choked air and sharp adrenaline at the Raceway — surely one thing cannot go unremarked: nearly half of those missing-presumed-dead women were of Aboriginal descent. This adds one more layer of indifference to a jaded populace apparently caught somewhere between the small town rural cruelties of its past and the uneasy suburban shrugs of its gathering future.

I know this. I worked with the street kid population here for years, witnessed their hardscrabble resilience. Few people ever gave a genuine damn about the plight of these children, even though some of the throwaways had not yet reached puberty. Two-thirds of street-involved youth in Mission are Aboriginal. Many are sexually exploited by family members, neighbors, pimps and selected citizens, but few speak of it. Some of these kids head west to Vancouver for a date with misery, stretching already tenuous community ties to the breaking point. My job as a street worker was to speak for these lost children, to ensure some semblance of the child welfare system would kick in through advocacy with social workers or teachers or families or counselors or probation officers. In a world in which the so-called "bottom line" — money and the politics of money — has become drawn too garishly, these already marginalized youth were, and continue to be, largely abandoned by a system designed to protect them. Sometimes I stand beside the town's failing heart, its run down main drag (1st Avenue), taking in the pawnshops and thrift outlets and dollar stores, and I'm convinced I truly hate this place... but only because I've loved it so deeply. In life: death. In death: life. The great inscrutable cycle.

In this way, the perennially troubled summer Pow Wow, always skirting the edge of ruin (corrupt, inept politics and sporadic funding, take a bow), yet often prevailing regardless, seems to me a far more accurate symbol of the clutching, ragged breaths that secretly haunt the sleep of this community. The fleeting vibrant colours of traditional dancers whirling in bright regalia — poignant as the plumage of endangered birds, flying amongst the high wailing melismas of the Northern-style singing and the vital, aorta-punching drums of the circles — somehow speaks more of an unavenged wound in time and place, set amid the cruelty that underlies so much beauty, than anything else this conflicted human settlement seems capable of offering.

An absurd contrast, really — this vibrant gathering and the judgmental silence of all those surrounding stories of the dead — the whole place holding its breath waiting for these mortal sorrows to purge themselves before the pristine lawns and asphalt and vinyl sidings are allowed to spread and eventually suffocate every fucking thing that ever felt like something here.

For here, tenacious as the town itself alongside relentless churning waters, the living will no doubt cling to hope and the perpetual dream of life until the muscled river — unnoticed, stealthy, taken for granted — wrestles away everything (horror, joy, splintered wood and the final word) at long last, sending it all tumbling toward the planet's dark and pitiless seas for good.

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