The Spook Who Sat By The Door (1973)

Country: United States
Director: Ivan Dixon
Starring: Lawrence Cook, Paula Kelly, Janet League, J.A. Preston
Music: Herbie Hancock
Based on the novel by Sam Greenlee

Today’s audiences may see this The Spook Who Sat By The Door as a low budget blaxploitation film from the early seventies that has little to offer the genre. But that isn’t quite so.

The film opens with a white politician checking the polls and his numbers to see if he will be re-elected. His numbers are down. The black vote in particular is a source of concern. To swing numbers in his favour, his assistant suggests that he accuse the C.I.A. of being racist and elitist because they have no Negroes in their ranks.

This sets the ball rolling. The C.I.A. begin an integration program for black Americans. Hundreds are interviewed, police checked and tested. Slowly their numbers are whittled down to forty, then ten.

One of the final candidates is Dan Freeman (Lawrence Cook), who is diligent in his studies and doesn’t go out on the town with the other candidates. This causes friction between the applicants and they accuse him of being a ‘puppet for the white man’. But as the evaluation process continues, Freeman proceeds through to the final round. He does all the right things. When he does venture out of the training camp, he goes to a prostitute. In this day and age, you may think that this indicates that he has low moral fibre. But no, this is the early seventies, and to the powers that be, this indicates that Freeman is not a homosexual. And anyone who has watched alot of spy films from the sixties and seventies knows that homosexuality was viewed as a weakness, or an illness, which often lead to communism. 9Not my view – simply an observation.

Finally Freeman makes it through the selection process. He alone, will be the first black American to join the C.I.A. Despite this honour, his worth to the C.I.A. is illustrated by the position he is entrusted with. Is he to become a covert agent out in the field performing daring missions? No way! He becomes the Top Secret Reproduction Section Chief…that is, he is in charge of the photocopier. But he does his job enthusiastically. Soon his professionalism and amiable manner are noticed, and he almost becomes a propaganda tool for the C.I.A. Whenever a dignitary or politician visits C.I.A. headquarters, it is Freeman who shows them around the facility. He is on show as much as the building and the technology.

But after five years of duty, Freeman decides to leave the agency to become a youth worker in Chicago. As an important role model for black America, he is given a hearty handshake and wished the best of luck.

This is where the film hots up. Freeman heads back to Chicago and does become a youth worker by day, but by night he moulds gangs of ghetto kids into a highly trained guerilla army. He teaches them all the tricks he has learned during his time at the C.I.A. And I am not going to ruin the film for you by telling you what happens next. It is fairly predictable, but the action set pieces and violence aren’t the point of the film. It is the message that’s the important bit. And it’s a simple message of equality…not really an equality of rights…but an equality in skills and the ability to think and to act for oneself without handouts and welfare from the state. It’s about being your own man, or woman.

It’s important to remember that before the film came out, there was a book of The Spook Who Sat By The Door, by Sam Greenlee, which was released in 1966. Obviously the title is a play on The Spy Who Came In From The Cold, and like LeCarré’s novel both are works of fiction. The comparisons end there. Greenlee’s book, while containing many espionage elements, had an underlying message for black America. I talked about the message in the above paragraph. It seems harmless enough, doesn’t it: the ability to think and to act for oneself without handouts and welfare from the state. But in 1973, when the film was released, it still was a message that many white American communities didn’t want to hear. While I am hardly an expert on Black Civil Rights, it seems that a fictive story with espionage genre trappings should barely raise a ripple. But for Black population that didn’t have the right to a voice, seeing the militant stylization in the movie was a powerful statement. So powerful in fact that the movie was rumoured to be pulled from distribution. For many years the only way to see it was underground screenings or on bootleg video.

The Spook Who Sat At The Door is a fascinating film. It is a low budget production, so don’t expect to be blown away by the visuals. At the heart, is it’s story and a subversive little story at that. If you are after slam-bam action, this will not be your film, but if you are after a spy film with a voice, or are simply interested in the times, then this movie is highly recommended.

This review is based on the Obsidian Home Entertainment / Monarch Home Video USA DVD

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