Two years after maverick auteur Melvin Van Peebles unleashed his film about a black revolutionary undermining white power structures, Sweet Sweetback’s Baaadasssss Song (1971), similar subject matter hit screens in this provocative movie, which was—amazingly—released by a major studio. Even more amazingly, The Spook Who Sat by the Door was one of the only ’70s studio movies both starring and directed by African-Americans. Co-written by Sam Greenlee, upon whose novel the picture is based, The Spook Who Sat by the Door presents the story of Dan Freeman (Lawrence Cook), a black man recruited to be the CIA’s first officer of color as part of a political stunt. At first, Dan plays the role of an Uncle Tom, accepting demeaning assignments and patronizing treatment while trudging through five years of running a copy machine at CIA headquarters—his work station is by a doorway, hence the title, which boldly mixes two meanings of the word “spook.” Once Dan leaves the CIA, however, he employs his government training to build a revolutionary army intent on toppling the white establishment. The story culminates, inevitably, with a riot that Dan sees as the first battle in an outright race war.
Although it’s ostensibly an action/thriller of sorts, with dialogue exchanges about conspiracy theories and plenty of violent scenes (especially toward the end), The Spook Who Sat by the Door can be watched in many ways. Thanks, in part, to cartoonish portrayals of white people—shown to be so arrogant that they can’t detect sedition in their midst—the picture is something of a social satire. And yet it’s also a call to arms and/or a warning, depending on where the viewer stands on the issues being explored. Alas, while it’s tempting to credit the filmmakers with far-ranging sophistication, as if the intention was to make a complex cinematic artifact, it’s equally possible that Greenlee and the film’s key creative personnel—including director Ivan Dixon, best known as a cast member on the long-running sitcom Hogan’s Heroes (1965-1971)—arrived at such complexity not through discipline but rather through the opposite. The Spook Who Sat by the Door is all over the place in terms of storytelling and tone, which makes it difficult to consider most of what occurs on screen completely deliberate. The acting is uneven, the photography is flat, and the narrative rhythm is erratic. Kudos to jazz great Herbie Hancock for his ballsy score, though, because his signature electronic flourishes accentuate the nerviness of the story.
Ultimately, the mere existence of The Spook Who Sat by the Door is the most remarkable aspect of the picture, because it’s not as if Hollywood studios were regularly in the business of manufacturing revolutionary propaganda, even during the anything-goes ’70s. In fact, it’s especially interesting to consider The Spook Who Sat by the Door side-by-side with The Man (1972), a studio picture imagining what happens when a black man becomes president via line of succession. Whereas The Spook Who Sat by the Door is unquestionably a byproduct of the Black Power/Black Pride movement, The Man is a Rod Serling-penned melodrama in which the hero expresses constant ambivalence about being asked to represent his race. Together, the films offer a troubling vision of a fraught moment in American sociopolitical life. On its own, The Spook Who Sat by the Door is as subtle as a hand grenade.
The Spook Who Sat by the Door: GROOVY