If you want a sense of the subtlety with which the makers of “The Spook Who Sat By the Door” attack their subject matter, take a look at the protagonist’s surname — the movie is about a black revolutionary named Dan Freeman. He’s gonna get free, man, and don’t you white motherfuckers forget it! Sledgehammer storytelling is often a mark of death in progressive-minded pictures, but “The Spook Who Sat By the Door” is so fiery, smart and entertaining that the lack of finesse hardly matters. The movie is an impassioned call to action, so it screams its message in capital letters.
It’s a bit shocking that this fierce movie about educated black men using their brains and their fists to overthrow the white power structure was released by a major studio, United Artists. It’s not so shocking that the film has been mostly unseen since its 1973 debut; there seems to be a special place in movie limbo reserved for radically political celluloid, especially if the politics therein lean to the left.
“Spook” recently played to an enthusiastic crowd at the Los Angeles Film Festival as part of a broader revival, and it’s already available on DVD from Monarch Video. It’s worth tracking down for serious audiences interested in its provocative script, and also for kitsch lovers interested in its funky period flavor.
“Spook” takes itself so seriously it can be enjoyed on its own terms or as a parody of itself. For my part, I enjoyed the movie on its own terms, even though I felt odd rooting for the black man to overthrow whitey since I’m, well, whitey. (I don’t recall oppressing anyone today, but you get the idea.)
Based on a novel by the ferocious Sam Greenlee, who also cowrote the script, “Spook” is deftly constructed. At the beginning, a white Congressmen decides to shore up his popularity with black voters by pushing for the recruitment of the first African-American CIA officer. The white CIA bosses do their best to sabotage the process, but Freeman (known mostly by his surname in the film) makes the cut. His reward? A gig running the Xerox machine used to duplicate top-secret documents.
Throughout his training and his five years with the CIA, Freeman strikes both white and black characters as an Uncle Tom who’s always quick with a “yessir” or a lighter for whitey’s cigar. But when Freeman leaves the CIA for a job as a social worker, we discover his secret. He’s actually a closeted militant who uses his CIA training to build a highly skilled army of black revolutionaries.
While the irony of Freeman’s last name is clunky, the meaning of the title is more layered. Without even exploring the multiple meanings of the word “spook,” there’s the pointed image of Freeman occupying his anonymous CIA job while secretly planning his war on whitey. You can play with this title however you want — it could mean that the spirit of a savior can be found in the most mundane of places, and it can mean that those in power are too arrogant to recognize a threat or, for that matter, human potential if it’s contained in a vessel they perceive to be less than human.
The movie is loaded with elements that beg to be discussed and debated, and that’s the point. There’s a bit of a disconnect between the complex characterizations of key black characters and the one-dimensionality of the cartoony whites — the filmmakers’ joyful revenge, apparently, for years of demeaning Steppin Fetchit portrayals of blacks — but the general spirit blends action-movie intensity with Swiftian absurdity.
Greenlee’s narrative has a chip on its shoulder, and that attitude is expressed through a range of provocative scenes. “Spook” has everything from calmly reasoned debates to lingo-ridden riffs to isolated moments of campy humor — notably the wild comeuppance inflicted upon an unsuspecting National Guard officer.
While the script has great force, intelligence and passion, it lacks in a couple of important areas. Some jumps in time are so abrupt that they break the flow of the story, and the script relies on cheats such as coincidences and the stupidity of our antihero’s enemies. There also are dull stretches late in the second act, and some peripheral characters play as caricatures.
But, damn, is this movie arresting when it’s going full-throttle. Featuring an early electronic score by Herbie Hancock that gyrates with invention and energy, the picture overcomes its flat visual style — think ’70s cop show — with dramatic momentum. The movie builds steadily until exploding in a elaborate riot sequence fueled by quick cuts and verite-style handheld camerawork.
“Spook” doesn’t have the ragged glory of the similarly themed “Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song,” but one can feel the movie slamming against the restraints of its budget. The action scenes are clearly more ambitious in conception than execution, and the mere fact that a picture with such incendiary subject matter got released by a company with, it’s safe to presume, a predominantly non-African-American hierarchy gives “Spook” the aura of a pugilistic underdog.
What saves the picture from being a one-note screed are the pockets of nuance and ambiguity. One of Freeman’s lieutenants is a young white man who insists he’s black, if only in spirit, and the filmmakers boldly leave the conundrum of that character unresolved. Also, Freeman has a give-and-take throughout much of the movie with a policeman friend who preaches the gospel of assimilation into white culture. That storyline gets resolved very distinctly, but that resolution is better discovered than described.
The screenplay and the score are the most obviously individualistic elements of the picture, but the late Lawrence Cook’s performance as Freeman is as effectively understated as Hancock’s score is effectively assertive. Cook plays Freeman as a man ready to boil over at any minute, and his restrained body language perfectly illustrates Freeman’s choice to impose self-discipline onto his rage. Even well before we’ve seen him inflict any violence, we believe it when he intimidates a challenger with a quietly spoken threat. Cook also shows the wheels turning behind Freeman’s eyes, his measured diction accentuating Freeman’s realization that only through education can the oppressed truly threaten the oppressor.
This movie certainly isn’t a masterpiece, in part because Ivan Dixon’s direction never really soars. The filmmaking is competent and lean, but not as inspired or audacious as the screenplay it serves. Still, Dixon gets major props for getting this powerful story on film. But if “Spook” isn’t a masterpiece, it’s nonetheless a unique artifact that’s as relevant today as it was thirty years ago. The movie poses one solution to the thorny issue of race in America, then leaves us to wonder where that solution might lead. “The Spook Who Sat By the Door” is a choice bit of old-school cinematic a*s-whuppin’.