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Forgotten film: The Spook Who Sat By The Door

Updated on May 24, 2017

Film Poster

The Spook Who Sat by the Door (1973) Ivan Dixon, Lawrence Cook, Janet League Action, Drama, Crime
The Spook Who Sat by the Door (1973) Ivan Dixon, Lawrence Cook, Janet League Action, Drama, Crime | Source

Taglines

He turned the American dream... into a nightmare!

Their first mistake was letting him in. Their biggest mistake was letting him out!

Film Director

Ivan Dixon
Ivan Dixon | Source

Director

Writing Credits

Producers


Funky Film Soundtrack

Cinematography by

Film Editing by

Film Trivia: Because black Is Struggle

The actor who played Pretty Willie (David Lemieux) was a member of the Black Panthers and later became a Chicago police detective.
The actor who played Pretty Willie (David Lemieux) was a member of the Black Panthers and later became a Chicago police detective. | Source

Starring

Film Trailer

Sam Greenlee's explosive, award-winning novel in the black literary tradition

Lawrence Cook as Dan Freeman

You Really Wanna Mess With Whitey?
You Really Wanna Mess With Whitey? | Source

Film Synopsis

This film was adapted for the screen from Sam Greenlee's cult favorite novel regarding political unrest, The Spook Who Sat By The Door.

The storyline is about a White senator, Gilbert Hennington, who hopes to attract Black voters during his reelection year.

He realizes that he cannot win without the Black vote and decides to make political hay by illustrating that the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) is not an inclusive organization.

He targeted the CIA because he figured that the agency was left vulnerable after the Bay of Pigs and U-2 disasters, which worked in his favor; the public attention got Hennington reelected.

The CIA bowed to the public pressure regarding diversity and admitted twenty-three Black applicants to their training program.

This was a Congressionally mandated integration program; however, the process was purposefully made difficult and unpleasant in order to segregate nearly all the Black students.

Dan Freeman, played by Lawrence Cook, was a clever, powerful, yet reserved social worker who somehow successfully completed the challenges to become the first Black CIA agent.

He was the only candidate without a typical middle-class background, which seemingly gave him an advantage in terms of his determination and resiliency.

Despite his evident competence and potential, he was relegated to mundane and menial job duties at the CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia.

His title of "Top Secret Reproduction Center Sections Chief" was pseudo for him being put in charge of the agency's ditto machines; he also gave tours of their facilities to illustrate to the public that the agency was now led in a progressive manner (e.g., with fairness and tolerance).

Freeman eventually left the CIA after five years, to relocate back to his hometown in Chicago.

He informed his superiors that he planned to do community work with a social service agency but he forgot to mention that he also planned to organize and administer a political revolution upon his return.

Freeman made use of his tenure at the CIA by collecting information on how to successfully launch this revolution (e.g., weaponry, communications and subversion, guerrilla warfare, clandestine operations and unarmed combat).

Upon his arrival in Chicago, he began recruitment of a local gang, the Cobras, who were frustrated with the system.

Together, they launched an armed, underground revolt for the purposes of eradicating the White dominated power structure in America.

This film was an interesting theatrical release for the director, Ivan Dixon, who is best known for his acting skills (e.g., Sgt. "Kinch" Kinchloe from Hogan's Heroes).

Film Title

The title refers to a practice in the early days of affirmative action, when the first Black person hired by a company or agency would be seated close to the office entrance, so that all who came and went could see that the company was racially mixed
The title refers to a practice in the early days of affirmative action, when the first Black person hired by a company or agency would be seated close to the office entrance, so that all who came and went could see that the company was racially mixed | Source

Film Summary

The Spook Who Sat By The Door was rated PG by the MPAA:

  • Parental Guidance Suggested.
  • Some material may not be suitable for children.

This film is an action & adventure, crime, drama, mystery & suspense, classic with a runtime of one hour and forty-two minutes.

It was released in theaters on Sep 21st, 1973 and it was distributed by United Artists.

Also, its initial DVD release was on January 27th, 2004.

The film's title refers to how early integrationalists placed Black employees in positions with higher visibility yet lower impact in order to showcase to the public how racially progressive the employer was.

This title worked perfectly as a one-line description of this film's titular protagonist, Freeman.

He was representative of the juxtaposition of Black men in that they are often invisible yet have a tendency to be conspicuous.

The Spook Who Sat By The Door essentially chronicles governmental exploitation and the cumulative effects of institutional racism.

The political and social policies wandered back and forth under the influence of special interests in this film (e.g., elections).

These exploits by the government were not about liberty, which justified the inner-city dysfunction for Freeman because he was being used as a model for affirmative action (e.g., tokenism).

Following years of toiling on the copy machine, Freeman was finally promoted but it was to reception, thus making him their "spook who sat by the door".

His personal frustrations coupled with group think created a snowball effect in the Black community, which led to a radical operation, filled with weapons and bloody mayhem, to overthrow the US government by force and tactical violence.

What we got now is a colony, what we want is a new nation.

— Dan Freeman

As a revolt ensues in inner-city Chicago and racial liberation sparks around the country, the National Guard and local police desperately attempted to stop Freeman's guerrilla bands, which were called the “Black Freedom Fighters of Chicago".

The film truly illustrated strategic Black militancy and the extreme reactions to it.

According to Sam Greenlee, the outdoor scenes filmed in Chicago were shot without permits

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Film Review

The Spook Who Sat By the Door is not a technically impressive, well-made or innovative film yet it does present a most politically charged vision of Black America that cannot be underestimated or dismissed.

Despite the fact that it is low-budget, this film questions race and politics with militancy and revolutionary rhetoric.

It is a hodgepodge of bigotry, humor, hindsight, passion, predictions and response, which sometimes makes it less convincing but it does manage to depict an interesting spectrum of social roles within the Black community.

This film essentially deals with colorism, racism, double consciousness, instruction, patience, opportunity, and networking.

The film did receive backlash for its polemicism and exaggerations, in addition to the stereotypical imagery used to convey its messages (e.g., Black rage).

However, it is not necessarily a subject for rabble-rousing rather this film encourages the viewer to momentarily suspend reality, transcend class, and consider the collective plight of all those oppressed by the system.

This is not about hating white folks… this is about loving freedom enough to fight and die for it.

— Dan Freeman

The Spook Who Sat by the Door certainly does stack the deck; it aims to raise Black consciousness but unfortunately misses by trivializing hundreds of years of national neglect.

It has been hailed as a landmark and denounced as racist but, at the very least, this film is still worth a view.

Also, a completely incredible, dangerous, and scary riot sequence is in this film, which would seemingly render applause from any filmgoer.

Film Awards

Award
Recipient
Category
Image Award (1974)
Lawrence Cook: Nominated
Outstanding Actor in a Motion Picture
Image Award (1974)
Paula Kelly: Nominated
Outstanding Actress in a Motion Picture
National Film Registry (2012)
Film: Win
National Film Preservation Board, USA

Trailer for Infiltrating Hollywood: The Rise and Fall of the Spook Who Sat by the Door

Film Analysis

Given, the political atmosphere in the US during the time of the film's release, particularly with the various social movements taking place in the public sphere, the makers of this film were bold and courageous to depict Black radicalism on screen.

Soon following its release, the film was pulled from theaters as a result of its politically charged messages.

With the facilitation of F.B.I. suppression, this film was only available on pirated video for approximately 30 years.

However, actor Tim Reid tracked down a remaining negative in 2004; it was stored in a vault under a different name and he released it on DVD.

Film director, Ivan Dixon, admitted that the film distributor, United Artists, refused to show The Spook Who Sat By The Door in a manner which would allow for its political message to effectively come across when clips were viewed prior to the film’s public release.

He said that when the film distributor screened the finished product they were shocked to see a version of political Armageddon.

This is yet another testament to the powerful messages in this film that were deemed potentially too influential, in a sense that this film would incite a militant Black uprising against the White power structure in America.

Film Recommendation

The Spook who Sat by the Door is recommendable to all.

It captures the breadth of American culture, history and social fabric.

This is a very intelligent and nicely scripted film chock-full of convincing action and interesting imagery.

Overall, the message of this screenplay is quite thought-provoking, innovative, and courageous for its time.

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    • lions44 profile image

      CJ Kelly 12 months ago from Auburn, WA

      Great hub. I learned something. I'm a little uncomfortable with the title, but it was the 70s. Sharing.

    • Mel Carriere profile image

      Mel Carriere 12 months ago from San Diego California

      Wow, I never knew the Hogan's Heroes guy directed a movie. I have absolutely never even heard of this until now, but would love to see it. Given the atmosphere of that day, it is amazing they even made the movie, and not surprising they pulled it from the theaters. Thank you for bringing this to my attention.

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