Starring: Lawrence Cook, Paula Kelly, Janet League and J.A. Preston
Rated: PG Crime/Drama
Based on the 1969 novel by Sam E. Greenlee, this film is centered upon protagonist Dan Freeman (Lawrence Cook), the first African-American to be accepted into the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). Set primarily in Chicago during the late 1960s and early 1970s, the reason for Freeman’s hire was to deflect the charge of Senator Hennington (Joseph Mascolo) that the CIA is racially discriminatory. This accusation was levied by the White, liberal politician because he wanted to gain his state’s Black vote.
Hennington’s accusation leads to his successful re-election and the intelligence agency has to begin recruiting African-Americans for training as case officers. Freeman, a graduate of Michigan State University and a Korean War veteran, earns the highest marks in his recruitment class. An expert in judo and hand-to-hand combat, Freeman seems to be the best candidate for entry into the CIA.
Despite his expertise and training, Freeman is made Section Chief of the Top-Secret Reproductions Center, which basically means he is in charge of the copy machine. Freeman is cognizant that his hire is merely token for the CIA in order to make the agency appear as if they are committed to racial integration and social progress. He is placed “on display” at the front of the federal agency’s headquarters and as a spokesperson at social and community events throughout the nation’s capital so that all may see the efforts of the CIA.
After five years of working at the Central Intelligence Agency, he quietly resigns, leaving Washington D.C. to return to his native city, Chicago. There, Freeman works to provide social services to Blacks. However, he has other reasons and accompanying plans for his outreach because he has a secret.
Dan Freeman is a Black nationalist.
With Black cultural education as well as training in arms, martial arts, communication, subversion and intelligence, Freeman recruits, educates and trains young Black men, significantly those of The Cobras gang. In spreading his agenda and techniques to African-American males throughout the United States, he prepares them in becoming members of his organization, the Freedom Fighters.
As Dan Freeman states in the trailer, “This is not about hating White folks … it’s about loving freedom enough to die, or kill for it, if necessary.” Will Freeman and the Freedom Fighters be able to attain their goal of ensuring that Blacks are truly free in the United States? Viewers definitely must catch this rare classic!
Like the novel, The Spook Who Sat by the Door was practically banned after its release. The novel was based upon the life experiences of author Sam E. Greenlee, who served as a Cultural Officer with the United States Information Agency from 1957 until 1965. Stationed at embassies in Greece, Iraq, Iran and Pakistan, he dealt in propaganda that specifically promoted, at all costs, American interests.
After his years of service, he wrote his first novel, The Spook Who Sat by the Door, while living in Greece. The title of the book is a double entendre. In “The Spook Who Sat by the Door: Blaxploitation Propaganda”, blogger NotSoFree Mason posted, “The multiple meanings of ‘spook’ are played out in Spook’s narrative as well. In the book and film, Korean War veteran Dan Freeman gains admittance into the CIA by playing ‘the spook’ (the racial slur for a subservient Black person). Now an official ‘spook’ (a spy), Freeman turns double agent and uses his training from the CIA to launch a paramilitary revolution against the United States government.”
Just as with his novel, Greenlee believed that this film was censored by various powers, including the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). He felt it suppressed its showing in theaters nationwide. Ironically, two of its stars’ performances were eligible for Image Awards of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). For their exceptional performances, Lawrence Cook was nominated for “Outstanding Actor in a Motion Picture” and Paula Kelly was nominated for “Outstanding Actress in a Motion Picture”.
It is interesting that in a conversation with Aubrey Lewis, one of the first Black agents with the FBI, Lewis confided to Greenlee that his novel was required reading at the bureau’s academy in Quantico, Virginia. Also, of note are the claims of the Symbionese Liberation Army published in the February 8, 1974 edition of the London Evening Standard. The army, best known for being the kidnappers of heiress Patty Hearst, declared that they “modeled themselves on a fictional Black anti-establishment guerilla group called The Cobras in the popular novel and film, The Spook Who Sat by the Door.” The film’s content was considered so Black revolutionary and politically controversial that, for decades, this film could only be seen in underground circles.
In “New Doc Unearths Story Behind Making of The Spook Who Sat by the Door” by Nina Metz in the Chicago Tribune, the journalist adds her insight. Not long after the film premiered in the United States, “… the film vanished altogether – pulled by its distributor, some allege, bowing to pressure from the FBI. The narrative, about disciplined efforts to take down The Man through brain power and armed revolts, was intentionally controversial, and it doesn’t take a leap of the imagination to presume the film made those in certain corridors of power nervous enough to ‘disappear’ the movie altogether.”
Director and producer Ivan Dixon spoke of the motion picture industry’s fears when he highlighted that distributor United Artists forbade any arrangement of the film’s preview clips that contained its political message. In a profile on the 30th anniversary of The Spook Who Sat by the Door by Karen Bates for “All Things Considered” of NPR, she reported “Dixon says when United Artists screened the finished product and saw a Panavision version of political Armageddon, they were stunned.”
In 2004, The Spook Who Sat by the Door was secured by actor and director Tim Reid, who released it on DVD. In the Chicago Tribune article, Reid shared his locating a remaining negative of the film, which had actually been vaulted under another name. To this challenge, he informed the Chicago newspaper journalist, “When they want to lose something, they lose it.”
Featuring a soundtrack by Chicago native and multiple award-winning musician Herbie Hancock, the film is still relatively unknown. Directors Christine Acham and Clifford Ward sought to change this with their 2011 documentary, Infiltrating Hollywood: The Rise and Fall of the Spook Who Sat by the Door. To Metz, Acham discussed that central to the film was “drawing a community together to respond to a repressive situation, which is so antithetical to everything that was happening in the Blaxploitation era, which was a lot about individualism … the movie is about group empowerment for change, and that was a message that I don’t think people wanted a wider audience to hear in the ‘70s, especially at the crux of the Black Power movement.” Starring those, including Greenlee, involved in the making of the film, Infiltrating Hollywood: The Rise and Fall of the Spook Who Sat by the Door won the Black Reel Award for “Outstanding Independent Documentary” in 2012.
That same year, the 1973 motion picture earned a most prestigious accolade. Referenced by film critic Jonathan Rosenbaum as “corrosively ironic and often exciting … one of the great missing (or at least unwritten) chapters in Black political filmmaking”, The Spook Who Sat by the Door was selected for admittance to the National Film Registry in 2012!
In 1989, the National Film Preservation Board (NFPB) created the National Film Registry in order to select films worthy of preservation. As per their literature, the NFPB annually selects “up to 25 culturally, historically or aesthetically significant films … with a mission to ensure the survival, conservation, and increased public availability of America’s film heritage.”