THE SPOOK WHO SAT BY THE DOOR (1973)
In 1969, outspoken black author Sam Greenlee wrote a satirical novel that was a cynical attack on America’s civil rights record and also a hard-hitting portrayal of emerging young black power factions such as the Black Panthers. Greenlee adapted his novel for the cinema with Melvin Clay, directed by Ivan Dixon for United Artists and it became an important film in black cinema.
THE SPOOK WHO SAT BY THE DOOR is the story of Dan Freeman (Lawrence Cook), a black radical separatist who infiltrates the CIA’s training program, completes it as the token black agent, tolerating the patronising and overt racism within the organisation, and then leaves to train his own Chicago paramilitary groups (known as ‘blowback’) to disrupt the whitey-dominated fabric of American society. Along the way, he is challenged by the black ‘Uncle Toms’ within white politics and takes his uncompromising stance of war in the streets against the National Guard to the point of America being placed on National Emergency by the end. He raises a glass to toast his own efforts…
Sam Greenlee was a cynical and shrewd judge of his country’s ruling elite and their attitudes toward ethnic minorities in both his novel, film script and recent interviews I saw with him on Youtube before his death in 2014. He said the authorities didn’t think black audiences read books, based on the statistics of how many blacks went to the cinema. They made up 26% of the movie audience despite being only 13% of the population. “We’re solid movie-goers. That’s when it became dangerous” he observed. If that was truly the case, then through movies would seem to the most effective option to reach and challenge them in their acceptance of the status quo and the poor record of the USA in civil rights. This worked highly-effectively for Melvin Van Peebles in SWEET SWEETBACK (reviewed earlier in my blog) and equally so for this film. It cost one million dollars and grossed six, but not without some personal blow-back of its own. Greenlee had his mail intercepted and endured public character assassination including the spreading of gay rumours. He clearly got to the very types he wanted to shake up.
THE SPOOK has its flaws certainly. In an early scene, the ten black trainees are given a condescending speech about being ‘the best of your race’ by Carstairs, their training officer, and upon his leaving they immediately break into a celebration of fooling the agency as ‘spies’. This is unbelievably gauche of them and seems like crude exposition from the film-makers. It takes Freeman to point out correctly to them later that they are probably being bugged. Also, when the white senior agent has a drink with Freeman, he offers a preposterously imperious insult as part of his praise when he talks about the advancement of blacks as needing “a cultural gap to be closed – It’s a question of evolution. Of course it’ll take generations”. This speech sounds like something Sir Humphrey in YES MINISTER would say in the smug privacy of his gentleman’s club, but in public to a black trainee – without any repercussion or reaction from Freeman? At least Carstairs’s later Freudian slip in referring to emergency incarceration response as: “Concentra – detention camps” has the ring of truth that its being said in confidence to a white boss.
There’s no denying though the force of Greenlee’s acute perceptions about how easily the subservient black man can make use of his status if he is radicalised and focused enough. In a session with his own recruits, Freeman educates them not just on his new CIA skills in bomb-making and combat, but on stealth: “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”.
Greenlee also has caustic fun at the expense of the confused and self-serving white activists of the time who co-opted the struggle as though it gave them identity and recognition also. One of Freeman’s white original fellow freedom fighters insists “I’m black! I eat black. I live black!” without seeing the absurdity of his pose.
Characteristically, Greenlee was pessimistic in later years about his film’s ability to effect any real change. He insisted that Bourgeois leadership co-opts every revolutionary struggle to neutralise it. But the power of its uncompromising viewpoint is rare and sincere.
In 2011 a crowd-funded documentary INFILTRATING HOLLYWOOD: THE RISE AND FALL OF THE SPOOK WHO SAT BY THE DOOR was made, the makers having access to Greenlee’s still heavily-redacted FBI file. In 2012 it was added by the Library to the National Film Registry, which is "a compendium of motion pictures that captures the breadth of American culture, history and social fabric, with the aim of preserving these fragile films for future generations".
Decades after its making, THE SPOOK WHO SAT BY THE DOOR is a worthy part of black cinema consciousness, and for me, films like it are important to mix in with the more trivial fun flicks when studying the Blaxploitation era…