The Spook Who Sat by the Door
Reviewed by Pat O’Connell
Pat O’Connell currently works as an Analyst for the Department of Treasury. He is the author of a book called Knight Hawk, and several magazine articles. He has served as the president of the Maryland Writers Association from 2000 to 2003.
“Get that damn movie out of the theaters and have all copies destroyed! This movie will cause a race war.” Richard M. Nixon (perhaps).
Okay, maybe Nixon didn’t say this, but who else had the authority to direct the FBI to make sure this film was removed from all theaters? And why was a copy of this movie impossible to get prior to its release as a DVD in 2004?
“The Spook Who Sat by the Door” is a 1973 film based on the 1969 novel of the same name by Sam Greenlee. Dan Freeman, the film’s protagonist, is an intelligent and well-educated black man recruited by the CIA as its first black officer. The agency teaches Freeman guerilla warfare techniques, how to use weapons, how to make bombs, and how to disrupt communities and cause social havoc.
But instead of using Freeman as an agent, the CIA puts him in charge of the photocopy room as “Reproduction Section Chief.” After five years as a glorified copy boy, Freeman resigns to start a career as a social worker in Chicago. But unbeknownst to the CIA, Freeman uses his CIA training and turns it against the agency¾and also against the white-controlled society of the ʼ60s and ʼ70s¾by recruiting frustrated angry black youths and training them to become freedom fighters.
If you were around in 1973, think back to the times: the previous decade included the assassination of black leaders Malcolm X and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., a massive urban uprising in Watts, California, and the launch of the Black Panther Party. Black Power was a rallying cry and racial integration was a fledgling concept in many parts of the country.
Although this movie is not particularly well made, it has a powerful message and is hard to judge. It is passionate and racially charged—promoting violence to solve problems of social inequality.
On one hand, I can see why the movie was banned. Perhaps allowing it to be viewed would have ignited race riots along the lines of Watts, a six-day melee in 1965 that resulted in 34 deaths and 1,032 injuries. On the other hand, the movie is worth seeing because of its perspective on oppression, social inequity, violence, and freedom.
The film feels dated—with references to “negroes” and “whitey” and characters in fitted jackets, wide lapels, big hair, and the long sideburns of the 1970s—fashions popularized in the hit movie “Shaft” released two years earlier. The vintage nature of “The Spook” lessens its threatening edge; at times, it even seems quaint. (By the way, its soundtrack was composed by the great jazz/funk artist Herbie Hancock. And the film’s director, Ivan Dixon, starred in the 1960’s sitcom Hogan’s Heroes as staff sergeant Kinch, the communications specialist.)
But I digress—and I don’t want to trivialize the serious issues the film highlights. Trying to solve social problems through violence and ethnic cleansing is still going strong in the world today.