Monday, March 30, 2009

The Spook Who Sat by the Door (1973)

"There is no way that the United States can police the world and keep us on our ass too... unless we cooperate."- Dan Freeman (the film's protagonist)
This 1973 low-budget film, despite selling out theatres in LA, New York, Chicago and Oakland for all of the three weeks it was showing, was subsequently pulled from circulation by United Artists (who put the film out). The film's producers contend it was due to FBI pressure on the UA, which would hardly be an unprecedented tactic for the Bureau in the days of its COINTELPRO program. Despite a shoe-string budget and technical drawbacks (cinematography as well as the screenplay and acting), the film is powerful and uncompromising. Perhaps that's why it was pulled from production.

The Spook Who Sat by the Door deals with black militancy and revolutionary struggle in the post-CRM America of the early 70s. The title of the film plays on the double meaning of "spook" (i.e. both as a racial slur, as well as slang for spy) and derives from the practice, quite common in the mid/late 60s, of hiring a token black person (in accordance with Civil Rights legislation) to keep close to the door so that white customers, etc. could marvel at the 'progressive' practices of the business in question.

It appears that UA thought they were getting a typical blaxploitation flick, but were caught off guard by the finished product and the amount of press the film was getting in the three weeks it was showing. Whether or not the FBI got involved, what's clear is that the business owners of UA didn't want to have anything to do with the continued circulation of The Spook or its powerful, uncompromising and controversial political edge.

From 1973 until its very recent re-release on DVD (which Netflix has, btw), apparently there were only bootlegs and an extremely sparse supply of copies around.

The Spook is soooo Seventies. From the orange shag-rugs, the clothes, and excellent Herbie Hancock soundtrack, the film is an interesting sort of snapshot of black culture in the early 70s. The slang and language are likewise extremely intriguing artifacts of the place and time the film emerged from. To be sure, there are some of the usual tropes and distortions characteristic of what had by then crystallized into the genre of "blaxpoitation". But there is still, I think, an important sense in which something outside the grips of commercial interests, something genuinely critical, left its mark on the film.

The plot begins with a scene in which a cynical White senator (seeking increased black support) undertakes half-hearted attempt to integrate the CIA (which was all-white at the time). The imperative to integrate isn't well received by the white higher-ups in the CIA: of the 10 potential black finalists for jobs in the agency, 9 are eliminated by white officers determined to find ways to ensure their failure. The only man to survive the vetting process is the unshakable, calmly confident Dan Freeman, the film's protagonist.

Despite the intense vetting process that Freeman is forced to endure, his job with the CIA consists in nothing more than menial desk tasks. After 5 years of being stuck running copy machines and giving tours of the facilities (i.e. "sitting by the door"), Freeman quits the CIA and moves back to his hometown Chicago to do social work. But after 5 years at the CIA, Freeman has acquired a host of skills and technical knowledge that he now plans to put into action. Although the CIA thinks they got the better end of the deal, it quickly becomes clear that Freeman had ulterior motives all along. Using his social-work as a cover, Freeman begins to transform, train and organize a street-gang in a rough neighborhood of South Side Chicago into a black liberation insurgency, in the style of the Black Panther Party (although, interestingly, the BPP is never explicitly mentioned in the entire film). The remainder of the film chronicles the formation and undertakings of these "Freedom Fighters" Freeman intends to lead in aggressively resisting black oppression.

Aside from a couple of iconic scenes filmed in Chicago on north-side El stops (some in Uptown (at the Wilson stop?) and in the Loop... woot!), most of the film was shot in Gary, Indiana because then-Mayor Richard J. Daley opposed the film's politics and resisted allowing the City of Chicago to have any part in its production.

In an excellent recent review, Cynthia Fuchs notes that:
Unlike the white vigilante movie heroes so popular at the time of this film's release (Dirty Harry, Buford Pusser, Death Wish's Paul Kersey), Freeman's (the film's protagonist) cause is not personal (or not completely personal, anyway). On leaving the CIA, he spends time in his Chicago neighborhood, observing childhood friends running numbers, pimping, and pushing drugs. Freeman sees a clear and present opponent: confronting one of these locals, Freeman demands that he see beyond his limited horizon. "White folks control your neighborhood through drugs," he grumbles, "And you dealing?"
Right. Because who among the ruling classes are afraid of an apolitical cynical loner like Dirty Harry coming to bring vigilante justice to the reigning racist-capitalist order? Its not due to the violence, illegality or militancy featured in this film that there were so many raised eyebrows and ruffled White feathers. It was frightening (for mainstream Whites) because the film dealt with confident, radical, politically conscious and organized black people joining together to aggressively resist oppression inflicted by White America. We also cannot forget that there were, at that time, on-the-ground social movements (despite their violent supression by the government and the murders of their leaders) trying to fight for black liberation. This was put out in the wake of assassinations of MLK, Malcom X and numerous BPP leaders. Somebody was scared of what black people seeing it might think.

Watching this left me totally unable to understand how a film with such an uncompromising and blunt portrayal of black revolutionary action could not only get made, but shown all across the country in major theaters (if only for a short period). It seems to me completely unfathomable that a film like this could be produced today. My arm-chair theory to explain how it got made, which has already been broached above, is that it piggy-backed on the "blaxploitation" genre which did often feature elements of Black Power and political uprisings against White oppression. But The Spook pushed the envelope in genre-defying ways, eschewing the pulp character and comedic quality that had come to define the genre by 1973. Instead of a comedy-driven, sexy action film (a la Shaft or Foxy Brown), The Spook was powerfully serious for a quasi-blaxploitation film. While there are light moments (mostly wry jabs at the hypocrisy of white-liberal attempts at 'integration'), the majority of the film is no joke. Apparently the capitalists (and possibly the FBI) involved in the distribution and circulation of the film didn't think so either.

(It appears that, for now, you can watch the whole thing here.)


Arvilla said...

This sounds awesome. I can only imagine something so radical these days in theaters, even in indie theaters...

I'm trying to imagine it, anyway...

T said...

netflix it!