The Spook Who Sat By The Door is one of the most remarkable semi-forgotten films I have ever seen. Based on a novel of the same title by Sam Greenlee, Spook is a low budget, modestly competent film that is a completely compelling howl of rage tempered by icy cold reason and militant belief. A film that never backs down, that never apologizes, that offers as its happy ending a street full of dead National Guardsmen, The Spook Who Sat By The Door must have been electrifying for black audiences in 1973 and flat out terrifying for the few whites who saw it.
Dan Freeman is in training to be a CIA agent, as part of a Congressionally mandated integration program. There are other black candidates, but Dan has a secret - he’s actually a rabidly militant Black Nationalist who long ago decided to play Uncle Tom so that he could better infiltrate the world of his enemy. That strategy pays off; while the other black candidates are picked off one by one during the process, victims of institutional racism, Dan stands firm. Finally he is the first ever black CIA agent, completely trained in all of the dark arts of the Agency.
His superiors immediately give him a job - he’s Top Secret Reproduction Center Sections Chief. Dan’s the Xerox machine manager. But he sticks it out for five years, being good and obedient and happy and not too ambitious, until he senses that it’s safe for him to quit; he leaves the CIA to return home to Chicago, where he recruits a local gang, the Cobras, to become his underground army.
The fictional events of Spook aren’t so different from the almost repetitive history of the CIA - again and again the agency trained foreign freedom fighters to overthrow Communist regimes, and again and again those freedom fighters would take their American-funded insurgency skills and use them against Americans and other friendlys. See: Al Qaeda.
One of the things that’s so shocking about Spook is the way that it treats the evil nature of white people as a matter of fact piece of truth. There are no scenes of overbearing white cruelty or nastiness, just some ugly casual racism. Dan Freeman’s righteousness is never questioned, is never up for discussion. White people are the enemy, from frame one. Black people are the oppressed mass who must rise up with violence to gain their freedom and a nation of their own. It’s a given. That’s kind of incredible, and what’s more incredible is that it works; from the start the white world is barely glimpsed, but it’s simply ominous and oppressive in every way. These are bad guys, and they’re bad without being mustache-twirlers. It’s just how they are.
Watching the film from a modern standpoint, far from the riots and domestic terrorist groups and ideological bank robberies of the late 60s and early 70s, the steady advance of Dan’s cause is also shocking. Certainly the movie must be setting him up for a fall, heading towards a place where the director says ‘I understand your rage, but not your methods.’ Except that it isn’t. And in the final few minutes the film allows Dan to basically speak to the camera and give one final fiery speech about the price that must be paid for black freedom; perhaps that’s what’s craziest, the way the film never strives for an overarching victory or a big ‘moment’ that’s a win - Dan just wants to fight whitey to a standstill, and he will die and kill anyone, even fellow brothers, to get to that standstill. When a population gets to a point where that’s how they feel, the rulers better watch out.
Spook plays in many ways like The Turner Diaries for Black Nationalists; it’s one part fantasy scenario, one part instruction manual. Each of the scenes present arguments for and against revolution, arguments for and against levels of inclusion and arguments for and against tactics. That’s probably the most remarkable thing about the film; I’ve seen plenty of ‘blaxploitation’* films that have the rage of the late 60s bubbling on every frame, but I don’t know that I’ve seen any that translate that rage into methodical purpose and philosophy. Spook explains why it’s important to have high yellow members in your Black Nationalist cell, and why they’re just as black as the blackest brother. It shows how to arm the cell. It shows how to set up the cell so that it suffers the least disruption when a leader is killed or captured. It shows the need for patience, but also the need to understand an opportunity. It shows how to network to other cities, to create other connected but independent cells.
Most powerfully it portrays Dan as a hero not for taking big heroic action or having a sweeping moment but because he will use any means necessary. He will seem to submit for years so that he can learn the tricks of the CIA and teach insurgency to the Cobras. He will maintain a smiling ‘aw shucks’ face so that the group can grow underground. He’s presented as a true revolutionary, not a romanticized Che figure.
As a film Spook sits right on the edge; the production is cheap - CIA HQ appears to be a high school hallway, complete with lockers - and the acting is often subpar. But the film is really lifted up by the performance of Lawrence Cook as Dan Freeman. Cook plays Dan with a cool, calculated surface that slowly begins boiling over as the film goes on; he’s completely believable both as Dan the Uncle Tom social worker and as Uncle Tom, his nom de guerre as the leader of the Black Nationalist army. Cook only lets us see Dan’s true anger once or twice, when stress pulls away his cool. But Cook - and the film - understands that it isn’t the anger that is behind Dan’s actions. The more cool and collected he is, the more effective he is.
There are a couple of bravura moments. Most of the film is shot in wood paneled rooms with barely-moving cameras, but every now and again director Ivan Dixon (an actor (Hogan’s Heroes**!), who also directed the well regarded but unseen by me Trouble Man) brings his camera out for some real action, including a couple of haunting scenes post-riot that show destroyed city streets (thanks to the pre-destroyed city of Gary, Indiana). But there is a riot sequence that is completely incredible - visceral, dangerous, scary and true - that makes you want to get up and applaud. It feels like Dixon waded into a true riot, Medium Cool style. It’s especially thrilling because other parts of the film feel so static, but I think even in a higher-budgeted, more kinetic picture this riot would be a stunning high point.
The film also boasts a score by Herbie Hancock. Very funky, very period, it’s sometimes remarkable and occasionally generic. It’s worth noting he did this AFTER he did Fat Albert. Here’s some of his score:
The title of The Spook Who Sat By The Door might be a little vexing for modern readers; besides the word play on spook - both a word for a spy and a fairly outdated racial slur - the title refers to the way early integrationalists would place black employees in high visibility, low impact jobs so that folks could see how racially progressive they were. After years toiling on the Xerox machine, Don finally gets promoted… to sitting in reception, becoming the spook who sits by the door.
Apparently Spook was pulled from theaters voluntarily by United Artists; I’m surprised they even released the film. It’s a lit powder keg of a movie, one that begins from the assumption that armed rebellion is necessary and inevitable. It would make a fascinating double feature with Conquest of the Planet of the Apes, which was released the year before. That film’s ending was softened by the studio, but Spook features no such easy out or appeal to harmony. The revolution is coming, and whitey cannot win.
* I put the term in quotes here because while I’m sure Spook played the blaxploitation circuit and was sold as such, the film itself is not at all part of that genre. There is no sploitation going on - it’s more like blaxucation.
** Hogan’s Heroes is a weird nexus point of off-center and sleaze. Dixon starred on the show. The show’s sets were used to shoot the landmark Nazisploitation movie Ilsa, She-Wolf of the SS. And star Bob Crane, of course, had a sleazy life of porno that led to his own death, as show in Auto Focus.