A secret revolutionary army forms with the help of a renegade CIA agent and their mission is nothing less than a nationwide uprising against all authority agencies within the United States. Is this some dangerous new threat from Al Qaeda or those sympathetic to their cause? No, this is a rebellion of black American men imagined in a bold, angry and, unfortunately, largely forgotten 1973 film called "The Spook Who Sat by the Door."
The film is no masterpiece. It's marred by dated elements, cartoonish depictions of institutional racism and a didacticism that undermines some of its dramatic momentum. But the passion on display is palpable and the film's uncompromising nature makes it an essential and unjustly neglected work from a landmark era of black independent cinema.
That explosion of black filmmaking in the early 1970s is sometimes collectively referred to as "blaxploitation" because it featured tried and true ingredients of exploitation films (gratuitous sex and violence) and because it sometimes regrettably presented role models destructive to the very community they served. Pimps and drug dealers were too often celebrated as heroes (something sadly carried over to much of the hardcore rap music scene of today). Even the fiery racial polemic of 1971's "Sweet Sweetback's BaadAsssss Song" (arguably the film that launched "blaxploitation") has a male prostitute at its center and plenty of extraneous sex to keep the audience titillated.
What is striking about "The Spook Who Sat by the Door" is that its revolutionary hero, Dan Freeman (Lawrence Cook), is no mere street soldier. Educated at the highest levels, he is the leading candidate to become the CIA's first black agent. (Though the agency certainly had black agents before this time, the film's broad attack on racial hierarchy seems more than valid.) The CIA brass roots against him, while other black candidates see him as an Uncle Tom. Indeed, after he makes the cut, Freeman serves very much as a willing "Tom," working as a glorified office assistant and never challenging the overt racism of his superiors.
But when Freeman leaves the agency to become a social worker, he takes his knowledge of the inner workings of Washington with him. Returning home to Chicago, he sets about recruiting street gang members and directing their activities as the core of a nationwide black army. A neighborhood riot and Freeman's strained friendship with a Chicago cop (J.A. Preston) help set off total urban warfare.
Based on a 1968 novel by Sam Greenlee (who co-produced the film and co-wrote the screenplay), "The Spook Who Sat by the Door" is unapologetically militant. The book is said to have influenced the Black Panthers and it shares much of its ideology with the Nation of Islam during Malcolm X's involvement with the movement. Its message is extreme, but there is an undeniable, sad truth in what it says about what really motivates change. It's doubtful America would have ever embraced the peaceful message of Martin Luther King without the combative rhetoric of Malcolm X as a contrast.
With the exception of its casual sexism (Freeman's simultaneous involvement with a prostitute and an engaged woman is portrayed as harmless), "The Spook Who Sat by the Door" claims some pretty high moral ground, with Freeman lecturing his soldiers on the importance of education and condemning the drug trade. Sex is implied but never shown onscreen and even the prostitute becomes a sort of agent for the cause. Of course, its militancy makes its message problematic. Freeman's uprising finally seems like little more than chaos, with no light at the end of the tunnel. The film avoids its most important question: where do we go from here?
But as a compelling document of racial disharmony, "The Spook Who Sat by the Door" deserves a wider audience. Director Ivan Dixon (best known as an actor for his role on TV's "Hogan's Heroes") keeps things effectively simple until the story demands more visual ambition, such as in the vivid riot sequence. Strong performances by Cook and Preston (one of those faces you've seen in dozens of TV shows and films) compensate for an uneven cast, and Herbie Hancock's soundtrack is a highlight.
Monarch's DVD features a restored print (filmmaker/actor Tim Reid was among those who helped champion a proper re-release) that probably looks better than the film ever did in its initial, very brief theatrical run. Extras include the theatrical trailer, TV spots, historical background from columnist DeWayne Wickham and interviews with Robert Townsend (another celebrity backer of the film) and author Greenlee. In his segment, the seventy-something Greenlee seems far from mellowing with age, coming across as defiant and ready for action as Dan Freeman himself.
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© 2005 Joel Wicklund