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Dan Freeman has planned and plotted the revolution for years, patiently waiting for the moment to activate sleeper cells of Black liberation warriors he has seeded across the country. But in The Spook Who Sat By The Door all of that planning gets undone by a couple of lunkheaded racist cops who shoot a low-level drug dealer in the back in the city of Chicago. As the people rise up on their own, as the streets become choked with angry faces and violent cops, Dan has no choice but to light the fuse of the national uprising he has prepared.
Released 47 years ago, Ivan Dixon’s adaptation of Sam Greenlee’s explosive novel (the film is co-written by Greenlee) feels remarkably of the moment. Some of that comes from the filmmaking – Dixon isn’t making a Blaxploitation movie (although it has been lumped in with that genre), so the film isn’t full of distractingly extravagant stereotypes and broad cultural signifiers. And he’s not making the kind of experimental film so favored by other boundary-pushing filmmakers at the end of the 60s and in the early 70s. This isn’t a film inspired by the French New Wave. The Spook Who Sat At The Door is incredibly straightforward, more of a procedural than anything else, and with a low budget aesthetic that makes it feel like an industrial training film, adding a bizarre and impossible to dismiss immediacy.
But more than that the arguments happening in The Spook Who Sat By The Door – and it’s a film that very much takes time to allow its characters to have ideological and strategic arguments – are the arguments happening right now online and in the streets. They’re arguments about structural racism and the solutions to it, and they’re arguments about how far is not far enough. The Spook Who Sat By The Door might be the most radical film released in the United States, so radical in fact that FBI agents visited theaters showing the movie and recommended to owners that they pull it from screens. Meanwhile, the novel on which the film is based was, at the time, assigned reading at the FBI Academy at Quantico.
Sam Greenlee wrote the original novel of The Spook Who Sat By The Door in 1966/67, when the United States – and the world – was in a moment of unparalleled (until now) upheaval. Greenlee served with the United States Information Agency, basically a group that ran US propaganda efforts overseas. The USIA was subsumed into the US Agency for Global Media, but in its time it was the biggest PR firm on Earth, and Greenlee was one of the first Black officials to be assigned overseas for the agency.
Greenlee had been born and raised in Chicago, to a dancer mother and a union father, and he developed his political leanings on the ground and then sharpened them with a BS in Political Science. Greenlee served in the military and earned a Meritorious Service Award in 1958 while stationed in Iraq and witnessing the sudden 14 July Revolution in Baghdad, surely an event that informed his eventual novel (a radio station takeover in Spook is certainly based on a similar one in Iraq).
Leaving the service in 1965, Greenlee moved to Mykonos, Greece with the intention of becoming a writer. He worked on pieces, a few of which were published in Negro Digest, but what really interested him was the idea of what it would look like if the uprisings and revolutions he had seen (and overseen) in the service would happen in the United States. Where would such an uprising begin?
He mixed that question with his own experience as a Black man in a white world – feeling often tokenized, marginalized and disrespected, Greenlee says that every word spoken to Dan Freeman at the CIA in his novel is something said to him or overheard by him. Greenlee’s theory of revolution begins with the curious place Black people occupy in white society – held down, oppressed, but necessary for the running of the machine. Black people are both constant outsiders but also completely invisible – put a mop and a bucket in a Black man’s hands and he can get inside anyplace is the theory of The Spook Who Sat By The Door, giving Black radicals access to the whitest halls of power, where they could potentially plant bombs.
Greenlee came back to the States with the finished novel, but could not find anyone who would publish it. The book languished until a British publisher picked it up, and it became something of a sensation. Eventually the book was published in the US (and in a dozen languages across the globe), but Greenlee always felt that the white American literary establishment purposefully ignored his book. Perhaps more damaging than being outraged at its revolutionary content, the literati of the time smothered The Spook Who Sat By The Door with indifference.
But the book made waves, and soon a film adaptation was on the table. To sell the film to UA Greenlee and director Dixon pushed forward the thriller elements, but all along they knew that the heart of the movie would be its radical unrepentant revolutionary politics. Blaxploitation was just getting started at the time, but it was clear that a hard charging thriller like this would be a hit with “urban” audiences, and UA took the plunge. You can tell they eventually regretted it – the poster for the film doesn’t portray a single inch of black skin, hiding its protagonists behind masks so as not to draw attention to what was really happening.
I want to take a small moment here to talk about Blaxploitation. It’s a catch-all term for Black genre films of the 1970s, but I think it’s often used wrong. The Spook Who Sat By The Door, for instance, isn’t a Blaxploitation film in any meaningful way. What’s more, I think real Blaxploitation films are made by white people – they’re exploiting a Black audience. Films like Spook and Sweet Sweetback’s Badasssss Song and Welcome Home Brother Charles are simply Black films in genre or exploitation spaces; by lumping all of these movies with the more pandering and white-directing films of the period I think we’re doing them a disservice, and more and more I feel like this framing is a way of dismissing good, powerfully political work. It feels structural to me, and I’d love to see other film scholars tackling a reframing of the very concept of Blaxploitation.
Back to The Spook Who Sat By The Door. The title has layers. First it’s the word ‘spook’ – both a term for a spy but also a racial slur for Black people. Greenlee had originally gone with the more familiar N-word slur in his title, but the double meaning of Spook was too good to pass up. Sitting by the door is a reference to how tokenization works (how it worked in the original Civil Rights Era and how it works in the Black Lives Matter era) – token Black employees would be seated in spots near the front door in order to maintain a conspicuous presence (today they get paraded out in photo ops on Instagram). That way anyone who came to the company could see that the company was integrated, even if it was the one Black body being used as a prop.
Dan Freeman is that spook. As the film opens we see a white Senator angered at his poll numbers. Election is approaching and he’s down by just under 2%, and a big problem is his lack of support in the Black community (or “Negro” as he keeps saying, and correcting himself). After giving a law and order speech the Senator has found his numbers down, and so he comes up with a plan – he will call out the CIA for its lily-white staff, and the ensuing brouhaha will improve his Black numbers.
(It’s worth noting that the Senator’s pollster is a Black woman. Dixon is not interested in making the Black population a monolithic group)
Thus begins a largely PR-oriented search for the CIA’s first Black recruit. A group of men are brought in and taken through rigorous testing; the premise is that the men will fail out and the CIA can shrug and say, “Well, we tried!,” but it doesn’t quite work out that way. Dan Freeman, one of the applicants, keeps scoring high in all of his tests, but most of all he’s just kind of… invisible. He fades into the background. He doesn’t draw attention. The other applicants hang around and buddy up, but Freeman is off on his own. Eventually they come angrily to his hotel room, asking why he’s doing so well as to ruin the grade curve for the rest of them.
What they don’t understand – what no one at the CIA can understand – is that Freeman isn’t there to become the first Black CIA agent. He does do that, and immediately gets assigned to the Xerox machine, running off copies of Top Secret documents. No, what Freeman is doing is going to the source to learn all sorts of insurgency training, to get the tactics and the skills the CIA teaches anti-Communist groups across the world, and to take those skills and tactics into the streets. We watch as the basic CIA training teaches Freeman to blow up cars, live off the land, to use household items to make explosives, to run a nimble campaign of violence against a larger, better-equipped and more ruthless force.
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