Overlooked & Underseen: The Spook Who Sat by the Door (1973)
“What we got now is a colony, what we want is a new nation.”
Having first watched this week’s movie three years ago, I felt it would be a perfect to highlight this week. When my husband first brought The Spook Who Sat by the Door to my attention, I honestly hadn’t heard about it at all so I went in blind. I was expecting a Blaxploitation film but that’s definitely not what I got with this important picture from the early 1970s.
Based on the Sam Greenlee’s 1969 novel of the same name, The Spook Who Sat by the Door is about how a man becomes the first black agent for the CIA and how he uses the knowledge and training given to him by the CIA against them. After some prompting, the CIA comes up with a scheme to make it look like they wanted to integrate the agency. They go through the process of trying to hire black agents. One man, Dan Freeman (Lawrence Cook), passes every single test they throw at him. Of course, the CIA isn’t really happy about it but they have to hire him. They don’t, however, want him in the field so they hide him down in the bowels of their building with the title Top Secret Reproduction Center Sections Chief. That’s right, he’s makin’ copies. He’s down there for five long years. Little do they know he was lying in wait, making plans. He knows he’s was only hired as a token and his only function is to show the nation that the CIA/government is integrated. He resigns from the agency and takes all of his knowledge and training with him where he’s planning on putting it to good use.
Freeman goes to Chicago where he’s told people he’s going to work in social services. Here he begins to put his plans into motion. What are his plans, you ask? He wants to start the next American Revolution. Freeman begins to recruit black men, “Freedom Fighters”, and trains them in all the tactics he was taught by the CIA. He teaches them how to beat the government at their own game. They learn hand to hand combat, how to make bombs… basically they are taught how to wage guerilla warfare. Once Freeman trains this first round of Freedom Fighters, he sends them all across the country to teach other black men what they know. Freeman and his fighters begin to wage warfare in Chicago and the authorities are forced to call out the National Guard to try and quell the revolution in the city.
At the time of its release, the FBI was so scared of The Spook Who Sat by the Door, they actually forced the film to be pulled from theatres. They felt the movie was too radical and the message of the movie too controversial. The FBI (and United Artists) thought the movie would encourage the black community to rebel against the government in their demand for civil rights. According to a 2011 story in the Chicago Tribune, actor Tim Reid tracked down a copy of movie in a vault somewhere, where the negative was actually listed under a fake title. It was then the film finally was finally released on DVD. The only way anyone could see the film prior to this was bootleg copies. There was a documentary made about the whole story behind the film and what happened to it called Infiltrating Hollywood: The Rise and Fall of the Spook Who Sat By the Door. I haven’t seen it yet but I’m going to try to track it down.
The Spook Who Sat by the Door isn’t the best made film you’re ever going to see but I think that’s beside the point. It’s pretty low-budget and rough around the edges. I remember commenting that I didn’t care for Cook’s performance because I thought he was had no charisma and was just sort of there. My husband pointed out that that was the point of the performance, especially in the beginning. Freeman needed to fly below the radar of the white establishment and be unnoticed. Herbie Hancock provided the music for the film and he does not disappoint. This was director Ivan Dixon’s second film. He went on to direct dozens of projects including many television shows. Dixon was also an actor who appeared on television from the 1960s all the way through the 80s, including being a regular on Hogan’s Heroes.
When interviewed about The Spook Who Sat by the Door, Dixon told the LA Times that he was only trying to show the black anger that exists in this country, he wasn’t trying to say that an armed insurrection was a solution.
The Spook Who Sat by the Door is available on DVD. It’s also currently streaming for free on YouTube.