In 1969, an ex United States Information Agency and Foreign Service officer named Sam Greenlee published a novel called The Spook Who Sat By The Door. The story of a fictional black CIA agent who turns around and uses his training in guerrilla warfare techniques, weaponry, communications and subversion to organize a black nationalist insurrection in his home town of Chicago. The Spook Who Sat By The Door became an underground classic, popular reading in the Black Panthers and other radical organizations. Ivan Dixon directed the film version, which was released in 1973.
Dixon’s film, also called The Spook Who Sat By The Door — the title referring to a practice in the early days of affirmative action, when the first Black person hired by a company or agency would usually be seated close to the office entrance — was immediately recognized by critics as an important, if imperfect movie about black liberation. In his review in the New York Times, Vincent Canby noted that “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.”
It should have been a hit. But then it vanished. Nobody’s quite sure why, but, as Sam Greenlee has pointed out, there were rumors that the FBI paid a series of visits to theater owners pressuring them to shut it down. The IRS threatened to audit its distributor United Artists, who responded by destroying most of the negatives. For thirty years, The Spook Who Sat By the Door survived only in poor quality bootlegs made by theater goers who brought video cameras to the original showings. In 2004, however, a surviving copy of the film was found, having been filed away under a false name, and a DVD was released by Monarch Home Video.
Vincent Canby underestimated The Spook Who Sat By the Door. It’s one of the few genuinely radical films in the history of American cinema, and should be in the canon along with classic revolutionary agitprop like Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin or Pontecorvo’s The Battle Of Algiers. But it’s more than agitprop. While Battleship Potemkin stages the melodramatic “Odessa Steps” sequence, the goal being to so outrage the viewer that he decides to support the Russian Revolution, The Spook Who Sat By the Door doesn’t even bother. Since it’s aimed primarily at blacks, it simply assumes that its audience is already angry at the system, that it already wants to overthrow white supremacy. That’s why Dixon stages the book as a manual, as a “how to” for urban insurrection. It doesn’t need our hearts. It needs our minds. Canby was looking for nuance and ambiguity, for character development and Oscar worthy performances. But would he have looked for those things in Thomas Paine’s Common Sense?
We first meet the hero, Dan Freeman, an intense Lawrence Cook, when he’s one of a group of black Americans who have been chosen to try out for the Central Intelligence Agency. Earlier, a white liberal Senator up for re-election had decided to pander to black voters by accusing the CIA of discriminatory hiring practices. Freeman, who has as his literary forebears Babo from Melville’s Benito Cereno and Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, makes it through the training because he knows how to suppress his emotions, to lay low, to avoid calling attention to himself. He’s the perfect spy. Unlike his fellow recruits, he understands that the white CIA officers conducting their training are racists who are looking for an excuse to flunk them all out, that everybody is spying on everybody. That also puts him two steps ahead of the racists at the CIA, who never quite understand that he’s spying on them.
Once he completes his training, Freeman moves into an apartment in Washington, where he commutes to the CIA in Langley to work as a Top Secret Reproduction Center Sections Chief (which means he has a low level office job where he gives tours to politicians and makes Xerox copies). He gets dumped by his upper-middle-class girlfriend (who will later turn him in) and hooks up with a prostitute he names Dahomey Queen (who will later become an important ally). After 5 years, he leaves the Central Intelligence Agency and goes to work for a non-profit in Chicago as a community organizer.
But Freeman is no community organizer. He’s exactly like Marlon Brando’s William Walker in Pontecorvo’s Burn. He’s a military adviser, a professional revolutionary who’s observed the world from inside the belly of the ruling class beast and knows all their tricks. What he does next can best be described as a series of steps demonstrating “what is to be done.” He confronts a local drug dealer, trying to persuade him to give up colluding with the white man to keep the black community doped out and passive. He picks a fight with the toughest street gang in Chicago, The King Cobras, then recruits them as his shock troops, transforming them from a band of criminals into disciplined revolutionary cadre. He teaches them how to steal. So far, he argues, they’ve only stolen from the black poor. The trick is to steal from the white ruling class. They rob a bank, start a ministry of propaganda, then raid a National Guard Armory. They form cells in other cities across the United States.
“We’re going to give the white man a choice,” Freeman says. “He can keep control overseas, or he can keep control at home. He can’t do both.”
When Shorty, the same drug dealer Freeman had tried to talk out of selling drugs, is killed by the Chicago Police, and it causes a riot, Freeman signals that it’s time for the insurrection to begin. What follows can best be described as a better led version of the uprisings in Newark and Detroit, or the later rebellion in Los Angeles. Freeman’s troops take over a local radio station. They blow up the mayor’s office. They maintain disciplined sniper fire from the rooftops against the National Guard. They kidnap a Colonel “Bull” Evans, smear his face with black paint, force him to drink acid, and send him out into the streets. Then, finally, Freeman is betrayed.
No white man, or woman exposes Dan Freeman as “Uncle Tom,” the code name for the leader of the insurrection. Indeed, the rebellion in The Spook Who Sat By the Door is so skillfully put together that the white political and military leaders trying to put it down can never quite believe that a black man is behind it. As Dahomey Queen, Freeman’s prostitute lover — who’s also sleeping with a senior CIA official — reports back, they think it’s the Russians. Freeman’s old fiancée, who had dumped him to pursue a more bourgeois lifestyle, goes to his best friend from college, Dawson, a senior Chicago police official, and voices her suspicions. Dawson, who Freeman had been trying to recruit as a double agent, eventually puts two and two together, and figures out that his old team mate from the Michigan State football team was the mastermind all along, that the cool, apolitical exterior was just a clever front for a secret black nationalist.
I won’t “spoil” the ending, but if you’ve seen Ken Loach’s equally radical film The Wind That Shakes The Barley, you can probably figure out what happens. Dan Freeman has to make a choice. It’s easy to kill the white occupier, but how about upwardly mobile black traitor? Let’s just say he “does the right thing.” It’s also worth noting that the novel’s author Sam Greenlee had initially tried to get Jesse Jackson to help him fund The Spook Who Sat By The Door. Jackson not only rebuffed him but took an active role in the film’s suppression, having immediately recognized the novel’s subversive content. United Artists, on the other hand, thought it was just another blacksploitation film. So they, unlike Jackson, helped make it possible.
The Spook Who Sat By The Door is on YouTube in its entirety. Sam Greenlee is now an old man who, by his own account, is living on food stamps and welfare, but he seems to have little trouble with his work being pirated. Indeed, he has noted in an interview that had it not been for the original bootleg copies, the film never would have gained its underground reputation or its eventual release on DVD. You don’t really have to be black to appreciate The Spook Who Sat By The Door, just someone who wants to see an important, suppressed piece of American culture given the full debate it deserved back in the 1970s.