The Spook Who Sat by the Door (film)
The Spook Who Sat by the Door is a 1973 action crime–drama film based on the 1969 novel of the same name by Sam Greenlee (which was first published in the UK by Allison and Busby after being much rejected in the US). It is both a satire of the civil rights struggle in the United States of the late 1960s and a serious attempt to focus on the issue of black militancy. Dan Freeman, the titular protagonist, is enlisted by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) in its elitist espionage program, becoming its token black. After mastering agency tactics, however, he becomes disillusioned and drops out to train young Chicago blacks as "Freedom Fighters". As a story of one man's reaction to white ruling-class hypocrisy, the film is loosely autobiographical and personal.
The novel and the film also dramatize the CIA's history of giving training to persons and/or groups who later utilize their specialized intelligence training against the agency - an example of "blowback."
Directed by Ivan Dixon, co-produced by Dixon and Greenlee, from a screenplay written by Greenlee with Mel Clay, the film starred Lawrence Cook, Paula Kelly, Janet League, J. A. Preston, and David Lemieux. It was mostly shot in Gary, Indiana, because the themes of racial strife did not please Chicago's then-mayor Richard J. Daley. The soundtrack was an original score composed by Herbie Hancock, who grew up in the same neighborhood as Greenlee.
In 2012, the film was added to the National Film Registry, which annually chooses 25 films that are "culturally, historically or aesthetically significant", and are, at least, 10 years old.
PlotThe story takes place in the early 1970s in Chicago. The CIA has been required for political reasons to recruit African Americans for training. Only one of them, Dan Freeman (Lawrence Cook), secretly a black nationalist, successfully completes the training process. He becomes the first black man in the agency and is given a desk job—Top Secret Reproduction Center Sections Chief (which means he is in charge of the copy machine). Freeman understands that he is the token black person in the CIA, and that the CIA defines his function as providing proof of the agency's supposed commitment to integration and progress. Therefore, after completing his training in guerrilla warfare techniques, weaponry, communications and subversion, Freeman puts in just enough time to avoid raising any suspicions about his motives before he resigns from the CIA and returns to work in the social services in Chicago.
Upon his return, Freeman immediately begins recruiting young black men living in inner-city Chicago to become "Freedom Fighters", teaching them all the tactics that he had learned from the CIA. They become a guerrilla group, with Freeman as the secret leader. The "Freedom Fighters" set out to ensure that black people truly live freely within the United States by partaking in both violent and non-violent actions throughout Chicago. The Freedom Fighters of Chicago begin spreading the word about their guerrilla warfare tactics across the United States; as Freeman says, "What we got now is a colony, what we want is a new nation." As revolt and a war of liberation continues in inner-city Chicago, the National Guard and the police desperately try to stop the "freedom fighters".
The film provides discussions about black militancy and the violent reactions that took place by white America in response to the progress of the Civil Rights Movement.
Historical contextThe 1969 novel The Spook Who Sat by the Door, from which the film was adapted, had been much rejected by mainstream publishers on both sides of the Atlantic before the author met Margaret Busby in London in 1968, and her new company Allison & Busby took on the book and launched it the following year to much critical attention. The political atmosphere in the United States during the time of the book's publication was particularly contentious, as civil rights, women’s rights, and gay rights movements became visible in the public sphere. Tim Reid, whose company helped to release Spook on DVD, said to the Los Angeles Times in 2004: "When you look back at the times...Martin Luther King was assassinated, Malcolm X, Bobby Kennedy. Black people were really angry and frustrated; we were tired of seeing our leaders killed. What do we do? Do we have a revolution? There is nothing that comes close to this movie in terms of black radicalism."
Soon after its release, with the facilitation of FBI suppression, as author Sam Greenlee believed, the film was removed from theaters as a result of its politically controversial message. Nina Metz wrote in the Chicago Tribune: "For years it was only available on bootleg video. In 2004, the actor Tim Reid tracked down a remaining negative stored in a vault under a different name ('When they want to lose something, they lose it,' Reid told the Tribune at the time) and released it on DVD." In a 2004 feature for NPR, Karen Bates reported that the director of the film, Ivan Dixon, admitted that United Artists would not show the film in a way that would allow its political message to come through when clips were viewed prior to the film’s public release. "Dixon says when United Artists screened the finished product and saw a Panavision version of political Armageddon, they were stunned."
It has been retrospectively suggested that the film "falls under the auspice of Blaxploitation but the political reality with which it dealt, that of black militancy and anti establishment ideology, is an aspect that most films avoided in fear of commercial alienation and criticism from the white establishment. ...Ivan Dixon’s film seems to be a missing link between the work of black film makers in the 1970s and the confrontational politics of a contemporary black film maker like Spike Lee."
Critical receptionFilm critics agree that The Spook Who Sat By the Door is a significant movie in that it presents a highly politically charged vision of black people, and according to PopMatters the film "remains one of the few uncompromised representations of black armed resistance in the United States." In a 2004 review for Philadelphia City Paper, Sam Adams recognizes the importance of Spook’s questioning of politics and race in America, despite some other technical weaknesses. Adams writes: "the movie's sly polemicism has arguably aged better than the revolutionary rhetoric that inspired it", and notes that the conflict within Spook in its use of stereotypical imagery along with its revolutionary political message: "Hailed as a landmark and denounced as racist, 'The Spook Who Sat by the Door' is, at the very least, still worth arguing over."
Similarly, Vincent Canby’s 1973 review of the film for The New York Times notes the film’s use of stereotypes in order to convey the message at the heart of it: "The rage it projects is real, even though the means by which that rage is projected are stereotypes. Black as well as white". Canby also notes the difficulty he had with reviewing the film in that, although it is not technically impressive or innovative, its political and racial significance is not to be underestimated or dismissed. "...'The Spook Who Sat by the Door' is a difficult work to judge coherently. It is such a mixture of passion, humor, hindsight, prophecy, prejudice and reaction that the fact that it's not a very well-made movie, and is seldom convincing as melodrama, is almost beside the point."
According to David Somerset of the British Film Institute (where the film was screened in May 2012 as part of their "African Odysseys" strand): "the major achievement of Spook is its depiction of a spectrum of social roles within the African-American community. It's a vivid picture of the language of race politics whose complexity and inherent contradictions go to the heart of the African-American experience, encouraging the viewer to transcend class and consider their collective plight. Without this critique of individual complicity in oppression, The Spook Who Sat by the Door could be accused of being a rabble-rousing exercise in fuelling blind resentment, but as Freeman tells a fellow gang member, 'This is not about hating white folks… this is about loving freedom enough to fight and die for it.'"
Richard Brody, writing in The New Yorker in 2018, describes the film as "a distinctive and accomplished work of art, no mere artifact of the times".
TitleThe title refers to a practice in the early days of affirmative action when the first Black person hired by a company or agency would be seated close to the office entrance so that all who came and went could see that the company was racially mixed. The word "spook" in the title has a dual meaning: a racial slur for an African American and a slang term for spy. The same dual meaning plays a role in the plot of the 2000 Philip Roth novel, The Human Stain, as well as in the film made after the book.
This is shown in Spook when Freeman is asked to give a tour to senators. After Freeman takes the senators on their tour, one of the senators stays back and congratulates the General for integrating Freeman into his personal staff. The General tells his second-in-command that making Freeman a part of his personal staff sounds like a good idea. The agent responds by saying: "We can put him out in reception, so all of our visitors can see we're integrated."
LegacyIn 2011, a documentary about the making of the movie entitled Infiltrating Hollywood: The Rise and Fall of the Spook Who Sat By the Door was released, winning the Black Reel Award for Outstanding Independent Documentary in 2012. Directed by Christine Acham and Clifford Ward, Infiltrating Hollywood featured Sam Greenlee and others involved in the making of the film.
In 2012, The Spook Who Sat By the Door was named by the Library of Congress as among the 25 additions of that year 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".